Although physicians and sleep experts agree that teens should have later wake times, a new study finds that about half of parents of teens do not support a delay in school start times.
Researchers at the University of Michigan (U-M) conducted a nationally representative survey through the U-M C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital Poll on Children’s Health. A total of 554 parents whose teens all begin school before 8:30 a.m. were able to express their opinions on how much sleep their children require and whether later school start times are a good idea.
“We found that parents underestimated how much sleep their children needed, and only about half agreed with existing recommendations that school start times should be later,” says lead researcher Galit Dunietz, Ph.D., MPH, a postdoctoral research fellow in neurology at Michigan Medicine.
School start time guidelines by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the American Academy of Pediatrics take into account teens’ natural circadian rhythms, which often runs longer than 24 hours. This longer internal clock makes it harder for teens to fall asleep when the rest of the family does and very difficult to get up early and be on time for school before 8:30 a.m.
“Many teens would do fine if they could go to bed late and sleep late in the morning,” says senior study author and neurologist Ronald Chervin, M.D., M.S., director of the U-M Sleep Disorders Center. “But they can be late to school or become chronically sleep-deprived when classes start early every weekday.”
And while many of the parents believed their middle and high schoolers could function properly on seven hours or less of sleep, teens need much more.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine says that teens ages 13 to 18 should get eight to 10 hours of sleep every night. The National Sleep Foundation also recommends eight to 10 hours for most 14- to 17-year-olds.
“If their bodies don’t tell them they’re tired until 11:00 p.m. or later and then they have to be at school before 7:30 a.m., many of these teens experience a chronic sleep debt,” says Dunietz, also with the U-M Sleep Disorders Center.
And the effects of chronic sleep debt reach far beyond feeling tired in the classroom (though that’s also a problem).
For example, a lack of sleep can result in decreased brainpower — a big problem for high schoolers driving early in the morning — as well as a greater chance of mood disorders (such as depression), obesity and risky behaviors, Dunietz says.
Still, the survey findings show that 51 percent of parents supported later school start times.
Many parents against later start times had logistical concerns, such as transportation issues and worries about fitting in after-school activities and adjusting meal times. Parents who believed that more sleep would benefit their children’s health or academic performance were more likely to support the shift to a later start time.
To find support for school start times of 8:30 a.m. or later, Dunietz says to look no further than schools that have made the change. Teens who do have later school start times are sleeping longer and are more alert during the day. Later school start times are reported to have had a positive effect on athletic performance, even when practice times are shorter to accommodate the later end of the school day. And schools that have pushed back start times report negligible — if any — negative effects, she adds.
“There’s evidence that it’s a win-win for everyone,” she says. “We cannot change teens’ biology to have them sleep earlier, so we should push the school start times back, in line with recommendations from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the American Academy of Pediatrics.”
The findings are published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.