Odds are that you’re feeling tired when you read this. More than one in three American adults don’t get enough sleep on a regular basis, and studies show sleep deprivation is an even greater problem for teens. This poses a public health risk — inadequate sleep is linked to chronic diseases like hypertension, diabetes, depression, obesity and cancer.
“Society has not prioritized sleep,” Rafael Pelayo, MD, a clinical professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences with the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine, told me. “Teenagers need more sleep than adults, so they are more vulnerable. Biologically teens tend to go to sleep later than when they were younger, but the schools start earlier. Teens should get close to 9 hours of sleep, but they get 7 hours or less.”
This epidemic of sleep deprivation among teens prompted California Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-Glendale) to introduce Senate Bill 328, which would require middle and high schools to start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. Currently the average school start time in California is about 8 a.m., and some schools have a “zero period” that starts as early as 7 a.m.
“It's an extra 30 minutes or more every morning for the entire school year,” Pelayo said. “The later start time lets teens and families know that sleep is valued and respected by society. School districts that have changed their school start times have had demonstrable improvements in the health of the students.”
According to the American Psychological Association, studies have shown that starting the school day no earlier than 8:30 a.m. increased attendance rates, grade point averages, state assessment scores, college admission test scores, student attention and student-family relations. They also found a decrease in disciplinary action, students sleeping during class and student-involved car accidents.
Such evidence inspired Pelayo to testify today in Sacramento in support of SB 328. He also rallied support among professional organizations and he plans to present letters of support from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the California Sleep Society, of which he is a board member.
Despite the evidence demonstrating the harm of sleep deprivation in teens, there are arguments against the bill. Opponents argue that school start times should be determined locally and that starting school later will be inconvenient. It is also viewed by some as a school policy issue rather than a health issue, Pelayo said.
Nonetheless, Pelayo believes the effort is important:
Too many families end the day with an argument about bedtimes and homework and start the day with an argument about getting up in time for school. Twenty-five percent of teenagers self-report falling asleep in class and the actual number is likely higher. If a first or second grader fell asleep in class, the teachers would notify the parents since it is so unusual, yet for teens it is a daily occurrence. If this many teenagers were not getting enough food it would be a national crises, but since it is sleep it is ignored. Teens that wake up alert are healthier and do better both academically and in sports.
The California bill comes at a time of heightened national awareness about teen sleep. Pelayo is speaking at the first national conference on school start times, which will be held in Washington D.C. later this month.
Previously: With school bells ringing, parents should ensure their children are doing enough sleeping, From A to ZZZZs: The trouble with teen sleep and Stanford doc gives teens a crash course on the dangers of sleep deprivation
Photo by Sari Choche-Be