As the back-to-school groans are mounting, it's time to enjoy one last weekend of freedom before fall officially hits. One of the best parts about summer, obviously, is getting to sleep in—but a new study supported nationally by pediatricians indicates that early school start times, such as those before 8:30 a.m., are actually a health threats for teens.
This past Monday (August 25), the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement that called for school districts to delay their start time until 8:30 a.m. or later for middle school and high school students. This call to action is supported by the study's findings that adolescents in America are experiencing chronic sleepiness and that it poses a threat to their academic success, health and safety.
"We want to promote safety with kids," Dr. Cora Breuner told NPR in regards to the study's findings. Dr. Breuner works at Seattle Children's Hospital as an adolescent medicine specialist "We truly believe that our teenagers are getting six to seven hours of sleep a night, and they need eight to 10."
Currently, over 40 percent of school districts begin school before 8:00 a.m. and a mere 15 percent have a start time at or after 8:30 a.m..
Dr. Judith Owens, who works at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. as a sleep researcher, wrote a more comprehensive review of the scientific evidence that the effects of insufficient sleep include health-related concerns severe as depression and increased obesity risk.
"It's making a very powerful statement about the importance of sleep to health," Dr. Owens said. "School start time is a cost-effective way to address this public health issue."
And simply going to bed earlier isn't a valid solution, because as children age into teens, their sleep cycle is shifted back by two hours. Even if they try to go to bed before 10:30 p.m., it's usually not possible.
But changing the start time for middle schools and high schools has a trickle down effect that is inconvenient for parents and teachers. Elementary school schedules must be taken into account, along with older siblings babysitting for younger ones, after-school activities and even teacher's schedules. Still, the research insistently shows that this issue is an important one that needs addressing.
As it stands, National Sleep Foundation poll revealed that 59 percent of middle schoolers and a whopping 87 percent of high schoolers get less than the recommended eight and a half to nine hours of sleep a night. And while parents like to blame factors like TV, computers or cell phones, the answer lies in biology.
"It's not simply about getting teenagers to go to bed early or removing electronics from the bedroom," Owens said. "Those are important things, but the biology trumps a lot of these environmental factors. The average teenager can't fall asleep at 11. Hopefully this policy statement will get the dialogue started in those school districts that haven't started, and be ammunition for those that are in the throes of making the decision."
Maybe by next year going back to school won't mean sacrificing precious hours of shut eye.