Peter Franzen, assistant professor of psychiatry at Pitt, is opening a lot of eyes in Allegheny County school districts. He’s campaigning for middle and high schools to commence each day later in the morning. Though the start time recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics is not until 8:30 a.m., each district in the county currently begins its day before that. Franzen researches the connection between sleep and emotional function. He says that he crusades for later school start times because of the “tight bidirectional association” between sleep and psychiatric disorders. Teenagers who don’t get enough sleep, says Franzen, are at a higher risk of developing depression, suicidal thoughts and behaviors, and substance abuse issues. They are also more likely to end up obese or with high blood pressure. Only a third of the adolescent population gets the recommended eight to 10 hours of sleep during the school week.
Why aren’t teens getting enough sleep?
Sleep changes a lot as kids progress through puberty. Biologically, slow-wave sleep gets lighter and lighter. This is our homeostatic drive to fall asleep. You build up your homeostatic sleep drive across the day; and if you’re awake for a really long time, you build up more drive, fall asleep quickly, and sleep more deeply. That process gets lighter as kids progress through puberty. The other thing that changes is their biological clock. We can look at melatonin as a marker for that. Melatonin is a hormone that gets released about two to three hours before bedtime, and then it’s flat during the day. That melatonin onset delays by about one to three hours as kids go through puberty. So not only is there a change to their homeostatic drive, there’s also a change to the circadian rhythm that is pushing kids to want to go to sleep later and to have lighter sleep overall. Other contributors to rampant sleep loss are social and environmental—like loss of parental control, digital devices, homework, and, of course, school start times.
Does starting school later help?
More than 400 schools in the U.S. have made this change since the mid-’90s because of what we know about sleep, and they tend to report positive outcomes: School performance goes up, people are late to school and fall asleep in class less often, and there seems to be a reduction in depression symptoms. All but one district has maintained the change.
Why is there pushback against later start times?
It impacts the entire community: teachers, parents, their work schedules, when sports practices or games are going to be, busing schedules. But, if you really think that sleep has this emotional regulatory function, and it’s as simple as moving school start times later so kids get more rest and do better, why wouldn’t you do that?