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Teenagers need more sleep, and permanent Daylight Saving Time won’t help

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As kids get older, waking them in the mornings can feel like a herculean task. Now that Daylight Saving Time may become permanent, thanks to last week’s quick Senate vote, experts on teen health and sleep are frantic to get the word out: Teens are already sleep-deprived, and this permanent time change will be detrimental to their health and wellness.

“I think it’s honestly going to be pretty brutal,” says Craig Canapari, director of the Yale Pediatric Sleep Center and a pediatrician. “Everybody likes the day being longer at the end of the day, but you have to subtract that sunlight from somewhere.”

For teenagers, subtracting sunlight from their already-early mornings will throw their circadian rhythm off even more, causing them to sleepwalk through their first classes and exams as their bodies wait to naturally awake with sunlight.

Teens are naturally “night owls,” Canapari says, pointing to body changes, homework, activities and a blossoming social life. “A huge proportion of teens are sleep-deprived already and that has to do with schools starting too early already. So you have this group of people who are chronically sleep-deprived.”

Teens already have a fraught relationship with rising early — not because they’re lazy, according to sleep scientists, but because their bodies naturally stay up later and need to rise after the sun is coming up. Teenagers need 8 to 10 hours of sleep “for optimal health,” according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “We know that’s a challenge,” says Nathaniel Watson, a professor in the neurology department at the University of Washington, and co-director of the University of Washington Medicine Sleep Center. “As kids age, their circadian rhythm gets delayed a bit. And it’s difficult for them to get to bed before 11. That’s why we advocate for school to start at 8:30 or later.”

The average school start time has long been considered too early for high school students in particular, whose bodies veer more toward staying up late and rising with the sun. “We need the sun to send signals to our brain and tell our circadian rhythm that it’s daytime. If we don’t get those, we’re not really awake,” says Julie Wright, co-author with Heather Turgeon of “Generation Sleepless: Why Tweens and Teens Aren’t Sleeping Enough and How We Can Help Them.” “We’re not ready to take a calculus exam without seeing a ray of sun.”

If Daylight Saving Time becomes permanent, “we have to wake these kids up three hours before sunrise to go to school. That’s not healthy for them and then we’ll have these groggy children staggering to bus stops in jet-black darkness,” Watson says. Every extra hour of light in the evening, he says, “reduces sleep duration by 19 minutes, which further exacerbates the sleep-deprivation problem we have with children in the United States.”

Many advocates hope school districts follow California’s lead: In 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a bill requiring high schools to start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. and middle schools no earlier than 8. The change is supposed to take place this coming fall.

“The literature is absolutely crystal clear that later school [start] times not only allow teens to get more sleep, but it allows them to sleep and wake up with their natural circadian rhythms,” says Judith Owens, director for the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Boston Children’s Hospital, and lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement advocating for later school start times. Standard time would be more beneficial for teenagers, she says. “We need light in the morning to wake up and suppress our melatonin release. That’s true across-the-board, but particularly concerning when it comes to adolescence.”

Teens rising at 5 or 6 a.m. to get ready to go to school, Owens says, is the equivalent of an adult waking at 3 a.m. That lack of sleep, and darkness upon wake time, could increase car accidents, depression rates and other health issues, according to Owens.

Wright says teenagers are already facing “a perfect storm of factors that steal sleep,” including academic overload, the pressure to prepare for college and the lure of technology. “We all go to sleep later and sleep less during Daylight Saving Time. So for teens, it’s adding even more to the perfect storm.”

For pediatricians and other teen sleep experts, one bright light to permanent Daylight Saving Time is it may finally push schools to start later. If we’re going to do this, we should do it right, [that] means take another hard look at school start times,” says Cora Collette Breuner, one of the authors of the policy and past chair of the AAP Committee on Adolescence.

“I guess the best-case scenario if it does pass the House, it does galvanize these school districts to say ‘Wait a minute this is going to really be problematic in the middle of winter,’ " and they may start to truly change school start times, Owens says. “Maybe the silver lining will be like California for statewide change in start times.”

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