Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Sleep Deprivation and Teens – a Postscript

Should parents and teachers of teenagers be more active advocates for a later starting time of school in their school systems? Chronobiological research and trials of later starting times say we should.

In his 2012 publication[1], chronobiologist Til Roenneberg adds considerable weight and science to reasons why all schools with teens should be taking this seriously. Roenneberg describes individual ‘chronotypes’ amongst humans based upon research on different sleep patterns of individuals during working days  as well as on days when there is no schedule or work demands.

“In fact, each of us possesses a different chronotype — an internal timing type best defined by your midpoint of sleep, or midsleep, which you can calculate by dividing your average sleep duration by two and adding the resulting number to your average bedtime on free days, meaning days when your sleep and waking times are not dictated by the demands of your work or school schedule. For instance, if you go to bed at 11 P.M. and wake up at 7 A.M., add four hours to 11pm and you get 3 A.M. as your mid-sleep...” Maria Popova (2012)[2].

It is this mid-sleep score that differs so much during the teenage years.

“Young children are relatively early chronotypes (to the distress of many young parents), and then gradually become later. During puberty and adolescence humans become true night owls, and then around twenty years of age reach a turning point and become earlier again for the rest of their lives. On average, women reach this turning point at nineteen and a half while men start to become earlier again at twenty-one … [T]his clear turning point in the developmental changes of chronotype … [is] the first biological marker for the end of adolescence” Til Roenneberg (2012)[3].

The evidence points to the teen’s biological need to go to sleep later, and thus rise later. Roenneberg cites worrying research that points to many teens experiencing narcolepsy during the day and that despite their bodies needing a full 8 to 10 hours sleep our social demands of them are making this impossible during the working week.

If teens are to reap the benefits of a full night’s sleep, this has serious implications about the optimal learning environment a school does or does not offer. 

The debate around taking action as a result of research findings started around 2009, and some schools have already reaped the benefits of adapting their timetables to suit their students sleep patterns.  It should be noted that in the example quoted below, New Zealand secondary schools begin between 8:30 am and 9:00am, (finishing around 3:15pm) unlike their counterparts in other countries which may start as early as 7 am.

“...a study has found if teens start the school day after 10am they're likely to be more alert, get more sleep and be in a better mood.
Thanks to almost 700 Year 9, 11 and 12 pupils at Wellington High School, researchers now have the first scientific data about how New Zealand teenage sleep patterns can benefit from schools changing their start times...
The later start time of 10.15am, introduced in 2002, reflects the findings of other research which shows teenagers need eight to nine hours' sleep a night.  - Susan Peperell (2010)[4].

However, there is a warning in the same article with further research cited that parents and teens need to be aware of:

“But here's the catch: teens with iPods, MP3 players, computers or gaming consoles in their bedrooms are getting less sleep – and the more technology they have, the less sleep they're getting.
Those are the findings of a study conducted by Massey University's Sleep/Wake Research Centre that compared the results to an earlier study carried out before Wellington High changed its start times for senior pupils.
 “Susan Peperell (2010)[5].
I would urge a full reading of Peperell’s article and Til Roenneberg’s book.  I’d also encourage some serious discussion both around your dinner table and in your schools. Perhaps this is an issue that gifted teens, as leaders, can take to their community as advocates for their peers.

If your school has changed its start time from earlier to later, I would be most interested in hearing from you.  Please feel free to add comments to this blog or email me  

[1] Til Roenneberg, (2012), Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You're So Tired. Boston,MA: Harvard University Press.
[2] Internal Time: The Science of Chronotypes, Social Jetlag and Why You’re So Tired by Maria Popova, available 
[3] Til Roenneberg in Time: The Science of Chronotypes, Social Jetlag and Why You’re So Tired by Maria Popova, 11 May, 2012, available 

[4] Susan Peperell, Sleep in, Start School Later Works for Teens. News item, 5 Sept 2010. Available
[5] ibid.

© Sonia White, (M.Gifted Ed).  Author, Teacher, Gifted Education Consultant (2012),  

This article is part of a series on how parents can help their gifted teens get the best out of their high school years.

To read preceding articles on this topic click on the links:

Parents of Gifted:  2. Does your teen know you love them 'warts and all'?

Parents of Gifted:  3. Promote sensible risk-taking

Parents of Gifted: 4.Teach your gifted and talented teen to prioritise

Sonia White is a parent, teacher, author and gifted education consultant.  She has many years of experience working with gifted learners of all ages.
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