If a doctor could prescribe a high school teenager something that would reduce their risk of depression, anxiety, suicide, obesity, drug and alcohol use, motor vehicle accidents, sports-related injuries, diabetes, risky sexual behaviors, migraines and immune system disorders, how eager would you be to obtain it for all students? What if this same medicine could also significantly improve their attention, learning, behavior, memory, and all-around school performance?
Remarkably, such a wonder-cure does exist, has already been prescribed to all teens by the American Academy of Pediatrics, and is only waiting for us to adopt it. This “magic bullet” is nothing other than later school start times for adolescents.
One of the many changes teens experience during puberty is a delayed onset of melatonin secretion, the hormone that causes nighttime sleepiness. Thus, while children and adults become sleepy between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m., adolescents may not be able to fall asleep until 11 p.m or later. This delay in sleep onset also causes teens to have difficulty waking up and feeling alert before 9 a.m., so that waking an adolescent up before 7 a.m. is similar to an adult waking up at 4 a.m.
Because current school start times conform to adult rather than adolescent sleep schedules, research has shown that two out of three teens sleep less than seven hours per night, much less than the 8½ to 9½ hours their developing brains need.
Because of this chronic sleep-deprivation, 20 percent to 30 percent of U.S. teens report falling asleep during class. The resulting fogginess and inability to concentrate has been shown to greatly affect school achievement. A study of students at the U.S. Airforce Academy demonstrated that just moving school start times back by 50 minutes is the equivalent of raising the abilities of all teachers in the school by one standard deviation.
In addition, a study in Los Angeles demonstrated that students whose schools start later are 40 percent less likely to sustain an injury during high school sports.
Outside of school, research shows that 27 percent of drowsy driving car crashes in the U.S. occur with 16- to 19-year-old drivers at the wheel. When Jackson Hole High School in Wyoming moved its start time back to 8:55 a.m., car crashes involving teenage drivers dropped by 70 percent.
Early school start times for adolescents are detrimental to their education and their health. A change in high school start times to no earlier than 8:30 am — as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Medical Association — would have a huge positive impact on our students and is well worth the minor inconveniences encountered in making this change.
Julia White is a junior at Orono High School.