The debate about school start times is raging in school systems across the country. Studies have found that later start times for high school can lead to fewer teen car accidents on Monday through Friday. Additionally, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), adolescents who get enough sleep have a reduced risk of being overweight or suffering depression, are less likely to be involved in automobile accidents, and have better grades, higher standardized test scores and an overall better quality of life. The AAP threw its weight behind the movement to delay high school start times this summer.
One question remains, though — if more sleep is better for teens, and schools continue to open early, why can’t teens just go to bed when they should? Believe it or not, it has little to do with laziness or just wanting to stay up late. According to an article in a recent issue of Psychiatric News, the reason has to do with biology.
In research begun in the 1970s at Stanford University, scientists documented a change in the timing of the biological clock at puberty, marked by a delay in nocturnal melatonin secretion. Melatonin is a hormone that helps regulate our body clocks. Because of the delay in melatonin secretion, teenagers’ internal clocks prompt them to stay awake approximately two hours later than younger children. The research also found the homeostatic sleep drive changes in adolescence, making it easier for teenagers to stay awake for more hours than younger children can manage.
Teenagers need about the same amount of sleep as younger children do — nine to 10 hours. So, if teens are going to bed later but getting up for school at the same time as their younger counterparts, that means the teens are sleep deprived … all due to biology.
The AAP says that napping, extending sleep on weekends, and caffeine consumption can temporarily counteract sleepiness, but they do not restore optimal alertness and are not a substitute for regular, sufficient sleep.