Presenter (Guy Raz): Does high school start too early? Some experts say teens are sleep-deprived because of early school start times that are designed for adults. I’m Guy Raz, and today I’m talking with Dr. Wendy Troxel, Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry and Psycology at the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Troxel’s research focusses on the relationship between sleep and health, as well as the implications for public policy.
GUY RAZ (GR): Welcome to the show, Dr. Troxel. If I were to ask you to give me one idea about something that could have a huge impact on kids in schools, what would it be?
WENDY TROXEL (WT): More sleep.
GR: More sleep—that could actually have measurable impact on how well students do at school?
WT: Absolutely, and we have evidence.
GR: Your research focusses on teenagers, so high school-age kids.
WT: Yes. That’s right. Kids who get adequate amounts of sleep perform better in
school. They’re more likely to show up for school on time, have better graduation rates.
They’re able to think and perform better. Their attention is better. Kids who are sleeping sufficient amounts also have better mental health and physical health, all of which we know goes into the factors that contribute to a whole, healthy child who’s able to perform and succeed in school.
GR: This may sound obvious, right? Kids need more sleep.
WT: Yes, but it’s not that easy. Sleep deprivation among American teenagers is an epidemic. Only about 1 in 10 gets the 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night recommended by sleep scientists and paediatricians. And remember, 8 hours is the minimum recommendation.
GR: And what do you think are the main factors contributing to sleep deprivation?
WT: There are several, but a major factor preventing teens from getting the sleep they actually need is public policy, not hormones, social lives or Snapchat.
GR: Public policy?
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WT: Yes. Across the country, many schools are starting around 7:30 a.m. or earlier, despite the fact that major medical organizations recommend that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. These timetables have a direct effect on HOW MUCH or, in fact, HOW LITTLE sleep American teenagers really get.
GR: Basically what you’re saying is that since school starts so early for teens, and obviously they have to wake up much earlier than that to get ready and reach the school before 7:30, they’re not going to sleep enough.
WT: Exactly. It’s a simple math problem. If you have a school that starts at 7:35 a.m., like my own child’s, that means that they’re getting on a bus between 6:30 and 6:45 a.m. So if you simply count backwards from the clock, your child has to be going to bed by 10:00 p.m. at the latest. And that’s simply not realistic for most teenagers. But the truth of the matter is all this is a decision that was made years and years ago before we knew the consequences of sleep deprivation.
GR: So, according to your research, we’re setting teenagers up for failure—failure in their ability to sleep and failure in their ability to perform well at school.
WT: That’s exactly right. Adolescence is a period of dramatic brain development, particularly in the parts of the brain that are responsible for those higher order thinking processes, including reasoning, problem solving and good judgment—in other words, the very type of brain activity that’s responsible for those impulsive and often risky behaviours that are so characteristic of adolescents.
GR: So, many of the unpleasant characteristics of teenagers, like abrupt changes in mood, irritability, laziness, depression, could actually be a product of chronic sleep deprivation?
WT: Right. Around the time of puberty, teenagers experience a delay in their biological clock, which determines when we feel most awake and when we feel most sleepy. This is caused in part by a shift in the release of the hormone melatonin. Teenager’s bodies wait to start releasing melatonin until around 11 p.m., which is two hours later than what we see in adults or younger children. This means that waking a teenager up a 6 a.m. is the biological equivalent of waking up an adult at 4 a.m.
GR: But this seems like an easy problem to solve. You just change the start time of schools.
WT: I wish it were that easy. But first let me tell you about some other benefits of later start times.
GR: Sure, please go on.
WT: What we know is that when schools start later, one school district found a 25% reduction in school absences. When we delay start times, children are actually more likely to get the bus. So we see an increase in class attendance, and as a result, an increase in graduation rates.
GR: This must eventually have a direct impact on their lifetime earnings.
WT: Of course. Teens from districts with later start times get more sleep, and not surprisingly, they do better academically. Standardized test scores in math and reading go up by 2 to 3 percentage points. Their health improves, and even their families are happier.
GR: So in essence what you’re saying is the teenage period in our lives is when our biology requires a specific schedule, and that specific schedule involves waking up later.
WT: Exactly. This is a developmental issue. People don’t have these shifted sleepwake schedules for the rest of their lives. It’s only during adolescence. Sleep science has clearly shown that there is a change in sleep-wake cycles and teenagers naturally go to bed later and sleep in later. So by depriving them of sleep in adolescence, we’re hurting their health and their chances for success.
GR: Thank you, Dr. Troxel. Unfortunately, we’re out of time. I’m Guy Raz, and you’ve been listening to our show about how simple solutions can be the answer to some of our most complex problems.