I think I’m on a new mission!
It seems that the more I read and learn about sleep and teenagers, the more strongly I believe that teenagers should start school (and university lectures) mid-morning at the earliest. And no, the teens aren’t paying me to say this on their behalf! They are probably too exhausted to think about this, to be honest.
I’m not the first by any means to be making this case, of course. There was even a petition to parliament about it in 2019, but the decision was to let individual headteachers decide what was best for their school. Some schools have moved to later starts, but I believe that it’s time for a wider move towards supporting healthier sleep patterns. It will take effort, but I'm convinced it will be worth it.
What do we now know about sleep?
There is a huge mountain of evidence and science that now clearly shows the benefits to young adults of starting their learning day when they are biologically designed to do so, at about 10 am, rather than being up at 6 or 7am, and at school around 8 or 8.30am (our traditional/ societal design).
The facts about teen sleep are clear.
The teenage body clock is different from that of children or adults aged over 25 (the brain is ‘fully developed’ by about age 25).
Teens are programmed to sleep from about midnight to 9 or 10 am.
They NEED 9 hours sleep to feel and function well and perform at their best academically.
(It is also important that they follow good ‘sleep hygiene’ of course, keeping phones outside the bedroom at night, switching them off an hour before sleep, and getting daily exercise and fresh air too.)
Many experts now agree
If you want to hear a real expert talk about this then I highly recommend Prof Russell Foster’s TED talk ‘Why do we sleep?’ which has had 2.5 million views and is only 20 minutes long.
He is very clear (and he is a University of Oxford Professor of sleep science). ‘Teenagers need 9 hours sleep for full brain performance. Many of them are getting only 5 hours on a school night, and that’s simply not enough.’
And before you say ‘well, they should just go to bed earlier’, it’s sadly not that simple.
With their brains programmed to fall asleep later than the fully developed adult brain (that’s evolution for you!), they simply can’t fall asleep earlier just because it would suit us.
That would be like me trying to go to sleep at 7pm every night ( and getting up at 4 or 5am every morning) – not pretty!
It’s time to follow the science!
It is high time that our society used this scientific evidence to support our teenagers and young adults to feel and function at their best every day.
It is time that science shaped our school and university timetables. (Undergraduate students have been shown to work most effectively from 11am to 9.30pm)
So what changes should we make?
Starting school at 10am leads to better teen health
A 2017 study from the Open University (carried out over 4 years in a British state school) showed very clearly that starting the school day at 10 am was significantly beneficial to the 13-16 year old pupils.
Absences due to all illness halved and academic performance improved.
When we add in the newest studies which show that missing sleep in the teen years leads to a higher risk of anxiety and depression in the later teens or early twenties, we start to have even stronger reasons to make sure that our young people get the 9 hours of sleep they so clearly need.
And the American Academy of Sleep Medicine has declared that ‘delaying school start times positively impacts student achievement, health and safety.’
Therefore, better sleep in the teen years will likely lead to better mental and physical health longer term.
It’s not rocket science (it’s sleep science!)
In summary, teens are designed to sleep from roughly midnight for 9 hours.
It’s not ‘laziness’, or ‘poor behaviour/ life choices’, it’s brain biochemistry.
Their learning day needs to start later than it usually does- at about 10am.
Society, schools, universities, sports coaches (who train at dawn) and employers who have under 25 year olds working for them all need to start to acknowledge the science, adapt their timetables, and support the health and wellbeing of the next generation, as well as allowing them to reach their full academic or performance potential.
If we really want to improve the long term mental and physical health of the younger generation we can.
Maybe you could raise this with your local school or sports coaches?
I accept that it won’t be easy to organise and will take time. It might not be a popular idea! Teachers might have to do some admin/ marking before lessons at 10am, and lecturers might have to plan their day differently, but when the payoff is the better wellbeing and academic performance of our students, maybe it’s a re-design worth investing in?