Students, in an age of global competitiveness, can improve themselves by sleeping in late.
That appears to be the conclusions of certain sleep experts who have declared that our entire work and school schedule is out of sync with our internal body clocks. Paul Kelley, who works for the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute at the University of Oxford, has advocated to the Guardian that schools should not start until 11 am.
So why is Kelley advocating such a late start time? And how could our bodies and society benefit from a world where we sleep more and later?
Society is sleep-deprived
The first thing that needs to be understood is that our sleep problems are not so much when the hours are as the fact that we are not sleeping enough. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “school-age children need at least 10 hours of sleep daily, teens need 9-10 hours, and adults need 7-8 hours.”
But instead, nearly 30 percent of adults report an average of less than 6 hours of sleep per day, and only 31 percent of high school students reported getting 8 hours of sleep on an average school night.
Furthermore, much of that sleep we do get is not particularly restful. About 50-70 million Americans have sleep related disorders such as insomnia, sleep apnea, and snoring which affects theirs and others’ abilities to properly fall asleep. And none of this touches onto the fact that our stressful lives also have an effect on our ability to properly sleep.
The consequences of sleep deprivation
A 1995 study on sleep deprivation concluded that “the average reported sleep length of 7.2-7.4 hours is deficient, and common sleep lengths of less than 6.5 hours can be disastrous.” While that may seemingly go too far, the negative effects of sleep deprivation are myriad and especially so on our youth.
Sleep deprivation has consequences beyond yawning a lot or falling asleep during class or work. The CDC estimates that there are 1,550 deaths and 40,000 nonfatal injuries related to vehicular accidents caused every year by drowsy driving.
And for growing teenagers, sleep deprivation has all sorts of physical and mental consequences. The Sleep Foundation has noted that teenage sleep deprivation can lead to an inability to concentrate, poor behavior, excessive food consumption, and even pimples. There are even studies which indicate a tenuous link between sleep deprivation and schizophrenia. Many mental diseases like schizophrenia first appear during one’s teenage years.
Sleep is critical for youth development on a physical, emotional, and mental level. But as noted above, teenagers and adults as a whole are not getting the sleep they need to concentrate on their duties when awake.
The benefits of sleeping late
So the effects of sleep deprivation are clear. But why does this necessarily mean that we should get up later? Could it not be possible to just go to bed earlier?
The problem is that as The Atlantic observes, “Teens stay up later not because they don’t want to go to sleep, but because they can’t.” Teenager have fundamentally different sleep cycles compared to children and adults and may spend all evening on their tablets and all morning sleeping in. Their brains do not release melatonin, a chemical which regulates our sleep cycle, until 11 pm and stop producing it around 8 am. This is about three hours later than adults.
What this means is that when a teenager wakes up at 6 am to go to school, his brain is still producing melatonin which wants him to go to sleep. The result is a sleepy, disgruntled teenager whose mental acuities are not all there.
If the ideal sleep hours of a teenager is from 11 pm to 8 am, than it would be for the best for classes to be made later so that teenagers can get sleep and perform their best in schools. In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that middle and high schools should delay the start of their classes to 8:30 am or later. This can help ensure the students will get the 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep which they should have in order to develop their brains.
There is a gap between starting school at 8:30 and starting it at 11, and perhaps Kelley’s desire may be a bit extreme. But the science shows that society could benefit from starting later and ensuring that everyone, especially our youth, gets enough sleep.
It should be remembered that our educational system times were set in an age where children would have to work on the farm or elsewhere, which would encourage schools to let the kids out early so they could do their chores while it was still daylight. We have managed to move on from such an age. It is time that we adjust our clocks as well.
Featured photo credit: Megan Schüirmann via flickr.com