Report: American Teens Lack Sleep

ByDaniel Finger

B O S T O N, Sept. 29, 2000 -- Pediatricians and politicians have issued a “Wake-Up Call” to America’s educators: Teenagers should start school later in the morning.

In a report issued Thursday, the National Sleep Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public understanding of sleep and sleep disorders, urges educators to adopt later start times for middle and high schools so teens can get more sleep in the morning.

They also recommend schools create a sleep-education curriculum to assist students in learning about the consequences of sleep deprivation and the importance of sleep to their overall health.

Kids Fade Fast During Day

Some evidence exists that teens who attend schools that open later get more sleep. In Minneapolis high schools — where start times were changed from 7:15 a.m. to 8:40 a.m. — students reported getting an extra hour of sleep each school day, say researchers from the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota.

Teachers report students are more alert during the first two periods of the school schedule, say the Minneapolis researchers.

Dr. Mary Carskadon, director of the Chronobiology and Sleep Research Laboratory at Bradley Hospital in East Providence, R.I., an adolescent sleep expert and co-chair of the foundation’s sleep and teens task force, says pubescent changes in body chemistry make it difficult for teenagers to get to bed early. Combined with early school start times, those changes mean many teens go to school sleepy, she says.

“Teenagers are getting way too little sleep,” Carskadon says. “They are being asked to get up at the wrong time. They are being asked to be in school when their brains are asleep.

“We don’t give sleep much respect in this society. Teachers, parents, and schools need to make sleep more of a top priority.”

Getting Enough Z’s to Get A’s

In fact, sleep studies have shown that teenagers need between 8 ½ and about nine hours of sleep each night, according to the report. In reality, only 15 percent of teenagers sleep for 8 ½ hours or more during the school week and more than one-quarter of teenagers sleep less than seven hours.

Lack of sleep can lead to poor grades and trouble concentrating in school, the foundation says. Sleepy teenagers are also more likely to have negative moods and behavior problems.

Drowsiness can even be deadly if sleepy teens choose to drive, the report warns. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, over 100,000 sleepy drivers cause traffic accidents each year.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., agrees lack of sleep is a problem for teens. She recently introduced a bill in Congress called the “Z’s to A’s” Act. This would allow school districts considering later school times to apply to the federal government for grants of up to $25,000.

“It is time for high schools to synchronize their clocks with their students’ body clocks so that teens are in school during their most alert hours and can achieve their full academic potential,” she says.

Later school start times will mean kids will leave school later — thus keeping many youngsters off the streets before their parents get home, she says. “Juvenile crime is highest between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. because kids are out of school,” she says.

Dr. David Kaplan, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Adolescence, is also in favor of changing school start hours.

“It is very important to get the word out to teenagers about sleep requirements,” Kaplan says. “Teenagers need to understand how much sleep they need. A lot of poor sleep habits are related to television and kids staying up late at night with trivial activities.”

More Time to Goof Off?

But some question the value of changing school start times. Dr. Joel Steinberg, medical director of the Pediatric Sleep Center at Children’s Medical Center of Dallas, calls the idea impractical and most likely subject to failure.

“Parents who work early hours would have to leave their teenagers home alone before their teenagers left for school,” he says.

Later school times also would affect after-school athletic programs and jobs, he says. One high school football team in Minnesota had to switch from after-school practices to 5 a.m. practices because of later school start times, says Lofgren.

In Edina, Minn., which has been using later school start times for five years, some sports teams members are released early from the last hour of class for games, says Laura Teuting Nelson, communication director for Edina Public Schools. Morning sports practices are banned, she says.

While Steinberg suggests adolescents will use later start times as an excuse to stay up even longer because adolescents are “rebellious,” others offer a compromise. “One can chip away on both ends,” Carskadon says, “starting school one half hour later and going to bed one half hour earlier.”

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