Why teenagers stay up late

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Aug. 24 front-page story "Digital diversions leave homes sleep-deprived" may mislead readers about the key cause of sleep deprivation for teenagers in Fairfax and Montgomery counties during the school year: start times that are way too early for teen body clocks.

New technology and screens may exacerbate the problem, but take all screens out of the bedroom and teens will still have trouble falling asleep early enough to get the requisite nine hours of sleep. To accommodate 7:20 a.m. school start times and predawn bus pickups, many teens must get up by 5:30 or 6 a.m. -- which means they should be in bed asleep by 8:30 or 9 p.m. That's before some extracurricular activities end.

The biological drives of teenagers to stay awake late aren't caused by poor parenting, bright screens or undisciplined kids; teens around the globe were night owls before electronic media came along. This shift in sleep clocks is caused by puberty. The hormone that makes us feel sleepy, melatonin, peaks later in the teen brain, making it hard for a typical teen to fall asleep before 11 p.m. and to wake up before 8 a.m.

Early school start times harm teens by cutting into their natural sleep cycle, forcing them to lose some of their best and deepest sleep each day. Many local school systems have found ways to achieve healthier start times while maintaining vibrant and competitive sports and after-school programs. We know it is possible. Here in Fairfax, we are still waiting for our district to catch up with the science.

Phyllis Payne, Fairfax

The writer is co-founder of SLEEP, or Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal.

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