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Studies Show Teens Are Not Morning People

Medical experts say biology changes an adolescent's sleep patterns.

It is a ritual that is repeated every morning. The alarm goes off and the teen-ager of the house just can't seem to drag himself out of bed.

The parent comes into the room repeatedly and tries to coax or even threaten the teen to get up, but the struggle goes on.

Sure, the teen-ager was probably up late doing homework, talking to friends, reading or watching television and is now too tired to get out of bed and head off to school.

Medical experts say the late-night habits of teens can't be helped.

"There is a biological change in the brain during puberty that controls wake and sleep states," said Dr. Daniel S. Lewin, pediatric psychologist and pediatric sleep medicine specialist for the Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. "A person's normal day is about 24 hours. An adolescent's is about 25 to 26 hours. They simply are not prepared to fall asleep until later."

Simply put, teens are not morning people.

CHILDREN OF ALL AGES are just as susceptible to sleep deprivation as are adults, in part because their sleep requirements change as they age.

Infants, for example, spend up to 50 percent of their time sleeping, said Dr. Richard Hoffman, sleep specialist with the Asthma and Pulmonary Specialists of Northern Virginia, in Alexandria. As people get older, they require less sleep.

He said however, a big issue with teens is their circadian rhythm, also more commonly known as the biological clock. Because of the circadian rhythm, adolescents enter REM, or the dream stage, later than adults, which can result in less good-quality sleep.

"They wake up sleepy. It's their body telling them they should still be asleep," Hoffman said. "If they don't adjust their schedule, it could result in progressive sleep deprivation."

Lack of sleep can affect students academically, can impair their judgment and generally make for a dangerous situation.

"Teen-agers are new drivers and are inexperienced drivers, for example. A driver who’s tired and inexperienced is a bad equation," Lewin said.

The doctors said some signs of sleep deprivation are falling asleep in class, being able to sleep at any time during the day, tiredness interfering with daily activities and not being able to wake up in the morning. Sleep deprivation can also be linked to behavioral and health problems such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD) and other sleep disorders.

Allowing teens to catch up on sleep over the weekend is not the answer, because it does nothing to help the biological clock adjust.

"The best thing to do is to continue to wake up the same time during the weekends," Lewin said. "Otherwise, come Monday, they had a good chance to catch up and are energized, ready to go. By Tuesday and Wednesday, they are starting to lose some steam. And by Friday they are at the greatest risk of sleep deprivation, and that's when a lot of teachers give tests and quizzes."

OF COURSE for students, adjusting their schedule can be difficult. In Fairfax County, the public school system follows a three-bell system that has high schools starting around 7:20 a.m. and some elementary schools as late as 9:10 a.m.

The medical studies show this is too early for adolescents.

"Kids have massive amounts of demands placed on them. To go to bed at 10 p.m. and get up at 6 a.m., it just can't be done," Lewin said. "Younger kids really are not affected by early start times, and some studies show they do better. The start times should be reversed."

Since 1991, there have been two major studies conducted in Fairfax County regarding later start times for high schools, the most recent in 1997-98. School Board chairman Stuart Gibson (Hunter Mill) said the entire task force agreed that the research about sleep patterns was compelling and that later high-school start times would benefit the students. However, nobody on the task force could agree on how to go about accomplishing it.

The school system switched to a three-bell system in the early 1990s for budgetary reasons. Changing the current schedule could require the school system to purchase more buses and overcome a current bus-driver shortage or flip the start times. One concern that was raised about reversing the elementary and high-school start times was having young children walking to school or waiting for the bus in the dark.

"This is something we can do that affects academic positively," Gibson said. "We're fighting biology."

A recent petition submitted by the Madison High School community supports later start times, and the school system is in preliminary stages of mapping out a pilot program that would reverse the start times in the Madison pyramid.

"It's an idea for a pilot," Gibson said. "There is overwhelming support for later start times at Madison."

Matthew Wansley, the student representative to the School Board, said the later start times have been an important issue among students.

"It's a perennial issue with Student Advisory Council," Wansley said. "The Council has unanimously adopted a resolution to support later start times for the high schools."

Hoffman said, "Rather than making adolescents adjust to us, we would all do better if the world could adjust to them."