Let teenagers lie-in, urge top scientists
An extra hour in bed every morning could improve the academic performance and well-being of teenagers, researchers say, due to their unique sleep patterns. Is it time to give them a break?
‘Making teens start school in the morning is 'cruel', brain doctor claims,’ ran a UK newspaper headline in 2007. The response wasn't enthusiastic. ‘This man sounds brain dead,’ was one incredulous comment.
But since then, there has been growing interest in the idea that teenagers should be given an extra hour in bed in the mornings to boost their academic performance and overall health and well-being.
This week it was announced that the largest ever trial into the effects of sleep on academic success will take place in the UK. The year-long study, which begins next September, will see year 10 and 11 pupils at more than 100 schools divided into two groups, with one starting school at 10am, and the other following the usual timetable.
It has long been assumed that most teenagers don’t like getting up in the mornings because they are lazy. If they went to bed earlier, they would be able to wake up earlier, say critical parents.
But according to scientists, this isn’t fair. University of Oxford researchers say teenagers start functioning properly around two hours later than adults. Their circadian rhythms — cycles of sleep and wakefulness — are two hours behind. Getting a teenager to start their day at 7am is like getting an adult starting theirs at 5am.
Yet if the start of the school day was delayed until 10am, the ‘learning, performance, attainment and school leaving qualifications’ of teens would be greatly improved, scientists say.
Predictably, raging hormones are still the culprits. During puberty, a hormone known as melatonin, which promotes sleepiness, is secreted in the brain much later in the evening, meaning that teens find it difficult to fall asleep before 11pm.
Some schools have already embraced the new school day, with impressive results. In one school in North Tyneside, a later start time saw the number of pupils attaining five A* to C grades at GCSE soar from 34% to 50%.
You snooze, you win?
Irregular sleeping patterns, such as sleeping in bursts, waking in the middle of the night or going to bed very late are often thought of as deviant behaviour. But this hasn’t always been the case. In the past, attitudes and sleeping patterns were far more flexible and far less uniform. For too long, adults have tried to make teenagers conform to their own schedules, with little success.
But a late start is not enough, others say, and biology is only part of the problem. Teenagers get sleepy later because they are spending too much time glued to their iPads and mobile phones and playing video games late into the night. This is stimulating their brains well past the time when they should be sleeping. Letting them lie-in in the morning might make this worse.
- Would you learn better if you started school at 10am?
- Is sleep underrated or overrated?
- Research the subject and write a leaflet advising people how they could sleep better.
- Some fascinating experiments have been conducted while researching the effects of sleep and sleep deprivation. Using ‘Become an expert’ as a starting point, present one such experiment to the class.
Some People Say...
“There is no hope for a civilization which starts each day to the sound of an alarm clock.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- I don’t need that much sleep — how does this affect me?
- Serious health problems can arise even from small bouts of sleeplessness, including obesity, heart disease, a shorter life expectancy, memory loss and depression. Twenty-four hours without sleep can produce as much impairment as being legally drunk and is a major factor in car accidents. Sleep deprivation has also caused some of the worst man-made disasters in history.
- Tell me more.
- When the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine exploded in 1986, the engineers in charge were seriously sleep-deprived. The accident resulted in hundreds of deaths. The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, also in 1986, was blamed in part on managers who had had less than two hours sleep before arriving at work at 1am.
- Our sleep-wake cycle is the result of a complex balance between states of alertness and sleepiness regulated by a part of the brain called Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SNC).The term circadian comes from the Latin circa, meaning ‘around’ and diem or dies, meaning ‘day’.
- It is a popular idea already in Germany and the USA. A trial at The United States Air Force Academy saw grades earned by a group of 18–19 year olds soar, after they introduced a later start time.
- In the past, it was common for people to sleep irregularly, usually for two or more periods throughout the day. Historians say it was the arrival of capitalism and the factory system, and the need for workers to work a full productive day, that led to the idea that sleeping from 11pm to 7am is ‘normal’.