Backgrounder: Later School Start Times

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Adolescents today face a widespread chronic health problem: sleep deprivation. Although society often views sleep as a luxury that ambitious or active people cannot afford, research shows that getting enough sleep is a biological necessity, as important to good health as eating well or exercising. Teens are among those least likely to get enough sleep; while they need on average 9 1/4 hours of sleep per night for optimal performance, health and brain development, teens average fewer than 7 hours per school night by the end of high school, and most report feeling tired during the day (Wolfson & Carskadon, 1998). The roots of the problem include poor teen sleep habits that do not allow for enough hours of quality sleep; hectic schedules with afterschool activities and jobs, homework hours and family obligations; and a clash between societal demands, such as early school start times , and biological changes that put most teens on a later sleep-wake clock. As a result, when it is time to wake up for school, the adolescent’s body says it is still the middle of the night, and he or she has had too little sleep to feel rested and alert.

The consequences of sleep deprivation during the teenage years are particularly serious. Teens spend a great portion of each day in school; however, they are unable to maximize the learning opportunities afforded by the education system, since sleep deprivation impairs their ability to be alert, pay attention, solve problems, cope with stress and retain information. Young people who do not get enough sleep night after night carry a significant risk for drowsy driving ; emotional and behavioral problems such as irritability, depression, poor impulse control and violence; health complaints; tobacco and alcohol use; impaired cognitive function and decision-making; and lower overall performance in everything from academics to athletics.

The Biology of Adolescent Sleep

Research shows that adolescents require at least as much sleep as they did as children, generally 8 1/2 to 9 1/4 hours each night (Carskadon et al., 1980). Key changes in sleep patterns and needs during puberty can contribute to