We’re a puritanical society when it comes to sleeping late in the morning. We equate having a lie-in to being a lazy good-for-nothing. Teenagers in particular suffer at the hands of such ignorant criticism.
The fact is, teens can no more bounce out of bed early in the morning than you can run 100m in 10 seconds.
We’ve known for some time that the teenage brain literally “deconstructs”, meaning that brain connections are broken, brain rhythms are disrupted and brain centres don’t function. Crucial among those lost functions is a broken body clock.
It’s still a 24-hour clock but it’s not in sync with day and night. This means teens don’t want to go to sleep until after midnight and don’t want to wake up until late morning.
For virtually all adolescents, the secretion of melatonin (the body clock’s sleeping pill) doesn’t begin until about 11pm and continues until about 8am. This means that most teenagers simply can’t fall asleep until this secretion begins, and find it impossible to wake up until the melatonin turns off.
This fixed pattern of melatonin secretion in teens doesn’t normalise until they’re in their 20s.
So the unique sleep/wake pattern of teenagers is beyond their control. What bothers me is that the biology of the teen brain is in direct conflict with school timetables, which stipulate an early start for adolescents. The result is they become sleep deprived.
There are serious consequences if teens fail to get adequate sleep. Those who are sleep-deprived – defined as getting less than eight hours per night – are more likely to smoke, drink and take drugs.
With less than nine hours of sleep per night, depression among teens rises significantly. Research shows around half of teenagers who sleep four hours or less per night feel sad and hopeless, compared to just a fifth of those who sleep longer.
Teen car crashes, the primary cause of death for this age group, significantly decline when teens obtain more than eight hours of sleep per night.
Later school start times are one answer and results are encouraging. The students do, in fact, get more sleep, tending to go to bed at the same time but getting up a bit later.
Not only does the teens’ use of drugs, cigarettes and alcohol drop, their academic performance improves significantly with later start times.
Most recently, car crash rates for teen drivers have declined with the implementation of a later high school start time. In fact, the crash rate for teens in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in 2013 dropped by 70% in the first year the district adopted a later high school start.