Written by Andrew Chang
Take a poll of the Hillsdale students, and you’ll undoubtedly find a disturbingly large population of chronically sleep-deprived adolescents. The importance of sleep for adolescents cannot be understated — it impact on physical, cognitive, and psychological health, as well as overall growth and development, is tremendous. Start school later, policymakers argue, and the problem is solved. After all, a 2014 survey of over 9,000 high school students in the Minnesota, Colorado, and Wyoming school districts reported that substantially more students obtained 8 hours of sleep when class started at 8:55 A.M., as supposed to 7:30 A.M. (Wahlstrom et al. 2014). Unfortunately, to conclude that school start time is responsible for the sleep deprivation epidemic is a gross oversimplification of the biopsychosocial factors impacting adolescent sleep patterns.
The underlying premise of a postponed start time is that it better aligns with teenagers’ circadian rhythm and sleep-wake homeostatic system. The theory is that adolescents suffer from a biological phase delay, in which the “biological night” is postponed (Carskadon 2011). It is hypothesized that the internal day length is prolonged in adolescents, or that their phase response to light is altered. In other words, either teenagers are less sensitive to phase-advancing morning light, or they are more sensitive to phase-delaying evening light (Carskadon 2011). At a glance, the late start makes intuitive sense — students naturally fall asleep at a later time, so they are unable to meet their sleep requirements with an early start time. However, often overlooked are the lifestyle choices that further exacerbate biological phase delay. At the heart of the adolescent sleep deprivation epidemic are societal pressures, electronic use, diet, and physical activity.
Advocates of the late start time often fail to consider the overwhelming societal expectations imposed upon students. Intuitively, one would expect that prolonged activation of the stress-response pathways poses deleterious long-term health effects. In Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, the author Sapolsky delivers a compelling case that outlines the physiological mechanisms and pathways by which stress affects cardiovascular health, immunity, metabolism, fertility, pain, memory, aging, depression, and of course, sleep. Unfortunately, a later start will not alleviate the physical and emotional stresses of AP courses, college applications, and extracurricular activities. Type-A students are caught in a vicious cycle, in which they ignore their body’s signals of exhaustion in their pursuit of success, only to find themselves drowsy in the morning from a poor night of sleep. A more holistic solution? Regular mindfulness and meditation.
Insofar as student workload will always remain a tremendous burden, teenagers are left with a couple of options to optimize their remaining free time. While the most obvious solution would be to minimize screen time before bed, it would be unreasonable to expect this in this current generation. Teenagers are notorious for their disproportionately great use of electronic devices, as well as their neurotic checking of social media.
Mechanistically, it would be reasonable to assume that bedtime electronic use reduces sleep quality, given that the circadian clock is especially sensitive to the blue light emitted from electronic screens (Carskadon 2011). Unsurprisingly, a recent meta analysis concluded, “Bedtime access and use of media devices was significantly associated with inadequate sleep quantity; poor sleep quality; and excessive daytime sleepiness.” In many cases, when students are immersed in their electronic devices late at night, they are not utilizing them for any worthwhile academic purpose. Those studying at 2 A.M. tend to be the individuals who regularly procrastinate on school assignments. This isn’t to say that someone couldn’t have been involved in extracurricular activities until 10 P.M., but that these over-achievers represent an extremely tiny subset of the entire population.
For now, let’s assume that students truly don’t have any time left in their schedules, and that they utilize technology solely for productivity. Even then, students can still exercise a great deal of control over their health and wellbeing. Namely, many factors related to dietary composition — macronutrient breakdown, micronutrient levels, whole foods — influence sleep quality and duration. More pertinent to Hillsdale students is the effect of stimulants on sleep patterns. In particular caffeine is a competitive antagonist to adenosine, which is a hormone involved in the sleep-wake cycle (Frank et al., 2017). Curbing caffeine before bed and eliminating refined sugar, while increasing fruit and vegetable intake, likely will confer most, if not all, the benefits of the later start time on energy and cognitive performance. Further, a 2015 meta analysis reported that “acute exercise has small beneficial effects on total sleep time, sleep onset latency, sleep efficiency, stage 1 sleep, and slow wave sleep, a moderate beneficial effect on wake time after sleep onset, and a small effect on rapid eye movement sleep” (Kredlow et al., 2015). Further, it concluded that “Regular exercise has small beneficial effects on total sleep time and sleep efficiency, small-to-medium beneficial effects on sleep onset latency, and moderate beneficial effects on sleep quality” (Kredlow et al., 2015).
Clearly, high school students are not meeting their sleep requirements. However, the reasons they attribute to their sleep deprivation are not an accurate portrayal of reality. While the relative importance of the various biopsychosocial is debatable, the late start time is certainly not to blame for the sleep deprivation epidemic. Sure, there may be the valedictorian playing three sports, taking five AP classes, volunteering four times a week, and working a side job. Maybe he or she truly has no time to sleep, even after reducing downtime. The truth of the matter is that very few students are taking measures to mitigate the effects of their altered circadian rhythms on their sleep. Students simply prioritize Instagram, gaming, and socializing more than their sleep — that’s fine, but they should acknowledge that their lack of sleep is more a result of their conscious decisions than the school start time. When overall health, longevity, cognitive function, or academic performance is of high enough importance, students will prioritize sleep hygiene. Until then, a late start should not be seen as the solution to adolescent sleep deprivation.
Carskadon, Mary A. “Sleep in Adolescents: The Perfect Storm.” Pediatric clinics of North America 58.3 (2011): 637–647. PMC. Web. 10 Sept. 2017.
Carter, Ben et al. “A Meta-Analysis of the Effect of Media Devices on Sleep Outcomes.” JAMA pediatrics 170.12 (2016): 1202–1208. PMC. Web. 15 Sept. 2017.
Chung, Ka-Fai, and Miao-Miao Cheung. “Sleep-Wake Patterns and Sleep Disturbance among Hong Kong Chinese Adolescents.” Sleep 31.2 (2008): 185–194. Print.
Frank, Sarah et al. “Diet and Sleep Physiology: Public Health and Clinical Implications.” Frontiers in Neurology 8 (2017): 393. PMC. Web. 15 Sept. 2017.
Kredlow, Maria Alexandra, et al. “The Effects of Physical Activity on Sleep: a Meta-Analytic Review.” Journal of Behavioral Medicine, vol. 38, no. 3, 18 Jan. 2015, pp. 427–449., doi:10.1007/s10865-015-9617-6.
Sapolsky, Robert M. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping – Now Revised and Updated. Holt Paperbacks, 2004.
Wahlstrom, K., Dretzke, B., Gordon, M., Peterson, K., Edwards, K., & Gdula, J. (2014). Examining the Impact of Later School Start Times on the Health and Academic Performance of High School Students: A Multi-Site Study. Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement. St Paul, MN: University of Minnesota