Palmyra High School student pleads for later start times

There is a problem that plagues teenagers in our country.

You might be thinking, “Well, it could be just about anything, from mental health issues to poor school performance. If so, you would be right. But you might not know that there’s an even more immediate day-to-day problem that exacerbates most of the difficulties teens face, and that problem is chronic sleep deprivation.

There are many reasons why sleep deprivation is prevalent among teens across the country and even the rest of the world. More often than not, people tend to blame increasingly demanding academic workloads on school and evening screen use, but one of the biggest obstacles to healthy sleep for teens is the school policy. To put it simply, teenage school days start too early.

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The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association and the CDC all issued recommendations years ago that high schools should not start before 8:30 a.m., citing evidence that shows the physical and mental health of adolescents, test scores, academic performance, and athletic performance improve dramatically once schools move to a healthy start time.

When I was researching for this article, I was shocked at all the amazing benefits of teens getting more sleep with later school start times. Car accident rates drop among teenage drivers, teenage immune systems are stronger, symptoms of anxiety and depression are measurably reduced, and much more.

Unfortunately, despite this evidence, many people are skeptical of a change in start times. Some think that such a simple solution is too good to be true. Others might think teens will stay up later if start times are moved later, which seems like a valid concern.

However, researchers were surprised to find that this is not the case: in districts where start times were shifted to 8:30 a.m. or later, students‘ median bedtimes remained essentially the same. .

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine, along with many other professional organizations, recommends that teens ages 13 to 18 sleep 8 to 10 hours a night for optimal physical and mental health, with 8 hours being the minimum and 9 and 10 being gold. Standard. But for most teens, the goal of getting enough sleep seems unattainable.

In their book “Generation Sleepless: Why Tweens and Teens Aren’t Sleeping Enough and How We Can Help Them”, Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright write: “In the United States, an average twelfth grader sleeps 6.5 hours during a typical school night.

Half past six. That’s 2-3 hours less than the sleep needed by all growing teenagers to stay healthy and happy.

At the end of the week, an elderly person who sleeps 6.5 hours a night has lost 10 to 15 hours of badly needed sleep. This “sleep debt” that accumulates week after week is never really repaid, because the teenager in this case has lost many hours of neurological development.

A seemingly easy fix, and one that many parents and teachers have no doubt tried, is to simply tell teens to go to bed earlier. However, when everything from competitive sports to homework to spending time with family and friends takes up so much of the afternoon and evening, sound sleep is a distant dream. This is especially true for older teens who may also be taking the SAT or ACT, applying to college, or working.

In young adolescents, the problem is often quite different. They often aren’t burdened with heavy academic workloads, busy hours, or late work schedules, but there is another key factor that conflicts with early onset times: circadian rhythms.

Circadian rhythms, according to Generation Sleepless, “are the body’s biological timekeeper.” The authors also write:[When kids reach adolescence], they undergo a natural passage at a later biological moment. It’s not just a preference; it happens on a chemical level.

What the authors and many other sleep experts point out is that teenagers’ innate desire to sleep later and even longer than we as younger children is not just a choice, but the result. of a hormonal change. That’s why going to bed earlier doesn’t work for all teens.

This goes hand in hand with the fact that most teenagers will stay awake later than preteen children when given the chance. Many teens are up late at night, often at midnight or later, due to the stimulating nature of screens or hours of homework. Social media, texting, video games, and virtually any other type of screen used at night prevents the brain from releasing melatonin, which is a hormone that regulates day and night cycles in the body, at a natural time. . Tech company algorithms are designed to keep young people in a state of flux for hours on end, and they pay the price every day when they suffer sleep deprivation.

Why schools need later start times

The best and most practical way to fix a disconnect between teen schedules and school schedules is to resolve it at the school level with a later start time, not to try to “fix” it. adolescent biological clock. Early start times are detrimental to student health and well-being and can make high school harder than it already is for many students. Sleep isn’t just rest for the teenage brain: it’s nighttime regeneration and growth. Therefore, we need to prioritize sleep over cramming extra time for high school student practices or activities.

Even so, 86% of schools in New Jersey start before 8:30 a.m., according to the New Jersey Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. This is in direct opposition to the recommendations of several professional medical organizations, and when you get to the root of increasingly common teenage issues like anxiety and depression, chronic sleep deprivation is often the culprit. .

So instead of complaining about laziness and teenage screen addiction, let’s do something about it.

Schedule adjustments for secondary schools can require a great deal of coordination from administrators, teachers, parents, and students. Fortunately, many large districts, such as the Minneapolis Public School District, have proven that staggering start times is feasible and highly beneficial for students.

If you are a parent, teacher, administrator, or student and want a healthy start time at your high school, you can start a petition, write emails to officials, or raise the topic at a council meeting. school council. .

No matter how you help, you’ll be advocating for a brighter, healthier future for all students at your high school, and that’s something to be proud of.

Owen Jacobs

Owen Jacobs is a member of the Teen Takes student writing committee and a sophomore at Palmyra High School. He started doing puzzles when he was 3 years old and joined Teen Takes to hone his writing skills. He wants to write about how the pandemic has changed high school and other current events.

Martha K. Merrill