7/8/13 - teenagers and sleep

In today's selection -- our bodies follow circadian rhythms, which for most of us means that we tend to perk up from around 9am until 2pm, then again from around 6pm until 10pm. This is governed in part by the brain's pineal gland, which knows to release melatonin throughout the body after it has been dark for a certain number of hours. However, during puberty, this shifts by several hours, making it biologically much harder for teenagers to go to sleep or get up at the normal times:

"Biology's cruel joke goes something like this: As a teenage body goes through puberty, its circadian rhythm essentially shifts three hours backward. Suddenly, going to bed at nine or ten o'clock at night isn't just a drag, but close to a biologi­cal impossibility. Studies of teenagers around the globe have found that adolescent brains do not start releasing melatonin until around eleven o'clock at night and keep pumping out the hormone well past sunrise. Adults, meanwhile, have little-to-no melatonin in their bodies when they wake up. With all that melatonin surging through their bloodstream, teenagers who are forced to be awake before eight in the morning are often barely alert and want nothing more than to give in to their body's demands and fall back asleep. Because of the shift in their circadian rhythm, asking a teenager to perform well in a classroom during the early morning is like asking him or her to fly across the country and instantly adjust to the new time zone -- and then do the same thing every night, for four years. ...

"Teenagers in the past were expected to spend part of their days in the classroom and then either work at an after-school job or complete a round of chores on the farm. To fit in time for both, the school day started as early as 7:00 a.m. This early start time remained constant despite sweeping cul­tural changes over the successive decades, including a sharp reduction in the percentage of young adults who work at an after-school job. Band practice, sports teams, drama club, and other activities that add to a college application have taken the place of paid employment for many teenagers. ... The lack of sleep affects the teenage brain in similar ways to the adult brain, only more so. Chronic sleep deprivation in adolescents diminishes the brain's ability to learn new infor­mation, and can lead to emotional issues like depression and aggression. Researchers now see sleep problems as a cause, and not a side effect, of teenage depression. ...

"Edina, [Minnesota]'s school board proposed a solution [starting the 1996-1997 school year] that was radical in its simplicity. Since students who were awake were more likely to learn something than those who were asleep, the board decided to push the high school's start­ing time an hour and five minutes later, to 8:30. It was the first time in the nation that a school district changed its schedule to accommodate teenagers' sleeping habits. ... [Researcher Kyla Wahlstrom] presented her findings a year later. They were unam­biguous. Despite the fears of some parents, teenagers did in fact spend their extra hour sleeping, and reported that they came to school feeling rested and alert. At the same time, the number of on-campus fights fell, fewer students reported feel­ing depressed to their counselors, and the dropout rate slowed. ... The year before the dis­trict shifted its starting time, the top 10 percent of students in Edina's high school averaged a combined 1,288 out of 1,600 on their SAT scores. The next year, the top 10 percent aver­aged 1,500. Researchers couldn't pin the improvement on anything but extra sleep. The head of the College Board, the company the administers that test, called the results 'truly flabbergasting.' ...

"Wahlstrom's research led to a boom in studies on the start­ing times at schools. Other districts followed suit, and found effects that sometimes went beyond scholastics. In Lexington, Kentucky, for instance, pushing the starting time back led to a 16 percent reduction in the number of teenage car accidents during a year in which teenage accident rates rose 9 percent for the state as a whole. In Rhode Island, pushing starting times back a half hour resulted in a forty-five-minute increase in the average amount of time that the average student spent sleeping. 'Our mornings are a whole lot nicer now,' the lead researcher of the study, whose daughter was a high school student, said at the time.

"Allowing children to get additional sleep may help solve the problem of school bullying as well. A 2011 University of Michi­gan study tracked nearly 350 elementary school children. About a third of the students regularly bullied their classmates. Researchers found that the children with behavioral issues were twice as likely to have excessive daytime sleepiness or to snore, two symptoms of a persistent sleep disorder."


David K. Randall




W.W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2012 by David K. Randall


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