Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright are the authors of “Generation Sleepless: Why Tweens and Teens Aren’t Sleeping Enough and How We Can Help Them.”
Now the Sunshine Protection Act sits with the House. But as we prepare to change our clocks this November — and with news of Mexico mostly opting out of daylight saving time, effective this past weekend (the exceptions: towns and cities on the U.S. border) — the idea is sure to be debated again. Popular opinion supports getting rid of clock changes, and for good reason — they’re disorienting and disruptive. But eternal daylight saving time is not the answer. Especially if we want to protect young people.
Humans evolved outside, in nature, and our brain clocks are exquisitely attuned to the sun. Standard time is an approximation of the solar day and is more or less in line with the rising and setting sun. Decades of research shows we’re at our best when we live harmoniously this way.
Daylight saving time, on the other hand, is essentially mandated jet lag. Permanent daylight time would leave us perpetually out of sync with our powerful internal clocks and would deny us the sun’s rays when our brains and bodies need them most: in the mornings.
If the House were to pass the Sunshine Protection Act in its current form, then for the first time in 40 years, the United States would experience daylight saving time in winter. The sun would rise unnaturally late, particularly in the northwestern part of every time zone: 9 a.m. in parts of Texas, 9:15 a.m. in Indiana, 9:45 a.m. in parts of Michigan. Students wouldn’t see the sun until well into their school day. This experiment happened in the United States in 1974. People found it so painful, it was abandoned after one winter.
This would all be tremendously bad for kids. Because of the later biological pacing of the teenage brain, waking at 7 a.m. already feels to young people like waking at 5 a.m. With permanent daylight saving time, it would feel like 4 a.m. This would put a serious strain on teen mental health. The result would be, among other things, shortened sleep for a population that is already severely sleep-deprived and a potential uptick in rates of depression, when teens are already struggling with elevated levels of depressive symptoms and suicidal thinking.
And let’s not forget: A policy that’s bad for teens is bad for the rest of us. Sleep-deprived teens are driving next to us on the freeway. Sleep-deprived teens are twice as likely to experience mental health symptoms, which affect families, schools and health-care systems.
In some parts of the United States, teens are getting relief in the form of later high school start times, which California has pioneered and New York is considering. If the country were to impose permanent daylight saving time, the beneficial effects of these policies would be erased.
All of us, children and adults, need morning sun and evening darkness to get enough sleep and to be healthy and happy. Morning sun tells every cell and organ in the body to start its daily work; in our repertoire of daily habits, morning sun is the slam dunk.
Daylight saving time takes this from us. During this period, the majority of people go to bed later, while still having to wake at the same time for school or work, which leads to accumulated sleep debt. The reason our health hasn’t deteriorated further is that this happens in spring and summer, when the day length is long and the sun is already up when we wake. Daylight saving time in winter would make every morning a dark, dreary struggle — and people’s health and moods would unravel.
Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and others snuck the Sunshine Protection Act through the Senate without review or deliberation. Under the bill, Sinema’s Arizona would get to keep its already permanent year-round standard time, which it has had since 1968. (Why Sinema would rejoice at the rest of the country being forced to spring permanently forward is baffling.)
We all enjoy the sun. But in winter, when sunshine is scarce, we don’t have the luxury of tinkering with time. Evening sun is for our entertainment. Morning sun is for our health.
Healthier than permanent daylight saving time would be to stick with what we have, changing times twice a year. But healthiest would be for Congress to change the wording of the Sunshine Protection Act to permanent standard time.
It’s rare that we have the chance to elevate youth mental health — everyone’s health — in a sweeping and immediate way. Permanent standard time would give us this opportunity.