Op-Ed: Let there be sleep — especially for NJ’s overtired teens

Sleep deprivation can cause myriad woes for teenagers, from poor performance on the playing field and in the classroom to depression and traffic accidents
Arvinth Sethuraman and Dr. Bert Mandelbaum

It’s six-something or earlier in the morning. Your alarm goes off and your teen’s alarm goes off. Then it goes off again. And a third time. Everyone is unenthusiastic and scrambling for the door; teens have to get on those daybreak-departing buses for a school day that might start as early as 7 a.m. in New Jersey.

For many parents, that scenario is a familiar memory of the past. With the advent of at-home virtual schooling, teens are sleeping in and parents’ mornings are temporarily more bearable. But as the COVID-19 vaccine rolls out and in-person school returns, teens will eventually revert to early morning scrambles.

But what if we could keep this later, more relaxed morning routine forever?

For decades, the vast majority of teens have not been getting the recommended eight-to-10 hours of sleep per night, and the effects of sleep deprivation reach far beyond the morning. Teens become drowsier throughout the day, affecting mental health, academics, sports and even driving.

Studies have shown that teens who get the correct amount of sleep learn better, have less anxiety and depression, have improved athletic performance with fewer injuries and get into fewer car crashes. Long-term, sleep deprivation in teens can lead to harmful changes in brain development, suppressed growth and greater risk of chronic illnesses like obesity, diabetes and heart disease. All those risks can be mitigated by helping teens reach the goal of eight or nine hours of sleep a night.

If the school day starts so early and teens need sleep to stay healthy, why can’t they just go to sleep earlier? Research in the past decade has shown, consistently, that teens are biologically programmed — through circadian rhythms — to wake up later and sleep longer than adults during the hormonal and physical changes of puberty. In particular, the brain releases melatonin — the sleep hormone — about two to three hours later as kids approach high school, which explains why high school teens tend to stay awake later than adults and younger children. In most adults, these sleep hormones only normalize in their twenties.

Start school later

Instead of having teens wake up earlier, forcing them to be sleep deprived, we should keep them on their natural sleep cycles. A straightforward yet effective solution is to start school later. Starting school at 8:30 a.m. or later, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and several other physician organizations, lets teens wake up at a natural time and get ready before heading off to the bus, allowing them to be awake, alert and ready to tackle their day.

Many parents’ first question about delaying school start times is, if we start school later, won’t teens just go to sleep later — canceling any potential gains in sleep? Researchers have studied this question in schools that delayed start times all across the country and found that every minute of delayed school start times toward 8:30 a.m. translates into extra sleep for teens. Changing school start times is most effective when the policy changes are supported by education of students and parents on the importance of sleep and good sleep routines.

Evidence continues to come in supporting the benefits of these policy changes. We see districts that implement these changes report improved test scores and improved student and teacher satisfaction. A recent study of one school district that delayed its start times by 50 minutes, from 7:20 a.m. to 8:10 a.m., saw car crash rates drop significantly in teen drivers — while the same accident rates stayed high in the rest of the state.

If the scientific evidence is so clear and there is overwhelming support from so many doctors, what’s the catch? Change from the norm is difficult and finding the will to initiate change requires buy-in from an entire school district: Bus routes and before- and after-school activities (like sports and child care) need small schedule changes to accommodate a healthy school start time for teens. While these scheduling hurdles are challenging, planning and community action have been successful in creating healthy school start times in individual New Jersey school districts. These districts have worked with leaders and stakeholders in athletic and after-school programs — that are also incredibly important parts of school — to craft solutions that keep them running smoothly while ensuring a healthy school start time for the entire community.

Other states have passed laws

While certain states, like California, have passed laws to make all schools start at 8:30 a.m. or later, New Jersey has not taken this step. In our state, pushing for healthy start times is a local decision that relies on grassroots organizing. How do you get a healthy school start time at your local school?

  • Get everyone on the same page. Parents, teens, teachers, administrators and local politicians need to know the clear health and safety risks of sleep deprivation and the benefits of a healthy school start time;
  • Have a conversation: Talk to your family, friends and neighbors about your local school’s start time. Does it make sense? What could an extra half-hour or hour of sleep do for you and your teen?
  • Make your voice heard: Advocate for a healthy school start time at your local school board and PTA.

While schooling is virtual for the time being, school districts are already planning the upcoming in-person school years. Now is the time to make your voice heard. With science and common sense at your side, you can help make a significant change in your community.