Adolescent Angst? Sleep On It
There are certain stereotypes in American society. Right or wrong, we’re all familiar with them; the Clueless Dad, the Doting Grandmother, the Wise Elder, the Surly Teen. Dripping with sarcasm, irritable, rebellious—the latter is almost certain to cause headaches for hapless parents who still remember their sweet little child who was once so happy to see them, so willing to acknowledge their existence…
Laziness, irritability, obstinance…these are all traits we associate with adolescence. But is it really all about changing bodies, rising and falling hormones, and a bad attitude? Or is something else to blame? According to a paper published recently in the journal, Learning, Media and Technology, the real problem is sleep. As in, lack of it.
It’s certainly true that teens’ bodies are undergoing numerous, rapid changes. Hormonal shifts may play some role in irritability, but other factors are still more important. Among other things, teenager’s brains are undergoing dramatic reorganization. Part of that remodeling affects the parts of the brain involved in activation and sleep. Long story short: teens are designed by nature to go to bed later, and sleep in later, than when they were young children.
Scientists speak of biorhythms. We all have them. The circadian rhythm, for example, involves events in the body tied to the 24-hour daily cycle of light and darkness. Jet lag—the feeling of disorientation or even physical discomfort that accompanies a journey across five or more time zones—is an example of a set of physical/psychological problems that arise when the biological clock is forcibly, rapidly reset.
In a sense, say researchers, teens are like international travelers who are expected to function on London time while being forced to live in New York. Their sleep schedules are out of synch with their bodies’ own biological clocks. The solution? Adjust school start times to accommodate teens’ need for somewhat more sleep in the morning and less at night.
During the teen years, “the conflict between social and biological time is greater than at any point in our lives,” say investigators. “…Studies of later start times have consistently reported benefits to adolescent sleep health and learning,” Additionally, “there [is no evidence] showing early starts have a positive impact on such things.” Groggy teens who have trouble rising for the bus in the morning aren’t lazy. They’re sleep deprived. They can’t get to sleep before 11 p.m., but they’re forced to rise exceptionally early to make early class start times.
Our educational institutions simply must recognize this biological imperative and realign schedules accordingly. In places where later school start times have been tried, students health—and grades—improved. No surliness needed.
"Synchronizing education to adolescent biology: ‘let teens sleep, start school later’" by Paul Kelley, Steven W. Lockley, Russell G. Foster & Jonathan Kelley, published in Learning, Media and Technology