California is going to phase in later school start times over the next three years, until 2023, when high schools will start no earlier than 8:30 am. This law doesn’t affect those early-bird classes that students opt-in for, so for those, it’s business as usual.
Some hail the move as a compassionate move that helps with what is a “public health crisis” of sleep-deprived teenagers. Other claim it will drive up district costs and extracurricular activities will go later, while some doctors called for more research. As someone who was a sleep-deprived teen, the minute I heard this, not only did I flash back to my high school days, but I had doubts this would work the way they wanted it to work.
Notes from a Former IB/AP Kid
In 9th grade (back then, junior high comprised grades 7–9) I got accepted into the International Baccalaureate program, which meant that instead of being shuffled to my neighborhood high school, I would be bussed to Coral Gables Senior High School (Go Cavs) for the next three years.
For the next two-and-a-half years, I worked my butt off and survived on 2–3 hours of sleep a night. At one point, I was taking 4 to 5 IB/AP classes, so the homework requirement was no joke. I got home and had a minimum of 5 hours of school work a night.
In 11th grade, I was recruited to the track team, but that lasted for one season, because 1) I badly sprained my ankle trying to qualify for state championships, and 2) it was taking too much time from my studies and homework.
My jock life was over.
Getting that little sleep for 2.5 years took a toll, but I was young. The adrenaline helped, and my body was more forgiving, so the high “bounce back” factor played a significant role.
Burnout ensued, however, and while I knew what that was, I didn’t know how to fix it, so I just pushed forward and tried to make up for the sleep I lost after our grades were locked six months before graduation.
But, it wasn’t enough.
Looking back, I cringe, laugh, and shake my head, because, while I don’t regret being an IB student, I had the right amount of youthful ignorance to fight through it and get my stuff done.
It’s funny how, when you’re young, sleep is something you push away, cursing about how you don’t need it. When you’re older, you beg for it every night and pray it never leaves you.
Adolescent Sleeping Needs
Adolescence is a critical time. Your mind and body are continuously changing, and those changes manifest in certain ways, some of which can be considered standard. Teenagers need approximately 8 to 10 hours of sleep, which is more than the adult average of 6 to 8 hours. Biologically speaking, adolescents have an intrinsic tendency to naturally fall asleep later and wake up later. This delayed sleep phase means that if they go to be at 11, they will more than likely wake up later in the morning, or in some cases, early afternoon. So, when a teenager sleeps for hours, it’s probably because their melatonin levels haven’t naturally turned off yet.
While going to bed between 8 and 10 pm seems reasonable, it’s just not realistic most of the time, especially if you’re dealing with a kid who has extracurricular activities that may help them get into a good school. Activities plus coursework mean regular late nights and severely restricted sleep. Another fact is that older adolescents don’t wake up as spontaneously as the younger ones, and the use of alarms disturbs the sleep cycle violently. The sleep they lose accumulates and leads to significant daytime sleepiness. Scientists figured that between 1:30pm and 3:30pm, and between 5:30pm and 7:30pm, were the times when the need to sleep was greatest in certain adolescents.
Effects on Brain/Body
We all know what happens when we’re tired in the morning. Our bodies feel heavy, eyes are watery, sometimes scratchy, and we continuously yawn…the list is endless. All of these side-effects come back to weak firing of neurons and lapses in specific regions of the brain. Sleep deprivation mixed with hormonal changes can bring about poor memory retention, inability to focus and pay attention, and even panic attacks, as one high school sophomore recounted.
It was a story I was familiar with back then. I remember one afternoon, during lunch, the story circulated about “Jane,” a girl I knew, who was a year ahead of me. She had a heavy schedule and decided to ingest a steady diet of popular over-the-counter caffeine pills as well as coffee. Jane had a breakdown and was pulled out of the program by her parents. It was concerning back then, but I realized just how dangerous her behavior had been when a teen died from caffeine overdose.
Some scientists believe that sleep helps to regulate emotions and to take the pressure off the brain. When this rhythm is disturbed or completely shattered, the mixture of chemicals running through teenager’s body heightens the risk of anxiety, depression, and suicide.
Teen driving tends to put some people on edge, but when it comes to driving while drowsy, it turns out that it’s akin to driving while drunk. Roughly ten percent of all car crashes are due to drowsy driving and one study conducted by the CDC in 2013 showed that 4.9 percent of the 18–24 age group reported falling asleep while driving, and in California specifically, the percentages were comparable to that number, and about 1.4 points above average. In fact, those who go without sleep for between 20 and 25 hours, have reflexes equivalent to someone who blows a 0.1 during a breathalyzer. Combine that with the inexperience of newer, younger drivers and you can see one of the major reasons why California would want to move on this plan.
One of the big pushbacks of the later school start time was cost. Some critics say that the cost of implementation would be a strain. According to a study from the RAND Corporation, this particular issue isn’t wrong. There will be an immediate cost to the change, but looking at 10 to15 years down the road, there would be an over $9 billion economic gain.
They came up with this number, in part, by quantifying better student performance, higher graduation, and lower drowsy-driving car crashes. It’s important to note that the $9 billion savings spoke about the U.S. economy, so the specific numbers for California would be included in their report. However, they do say that two years after implementing this plan would be the break even point, with a twenty year projection of earning more than three-and-a-half dollars for every dollar spent.
With all that sexy money projection talk, how can a thirsty state resist?
But, Will It Be Enough?
Okay, so if teens go to bed between 10 and 11, they may get enough sleep so they can get up and ready to get out to catch the bus by 7am or so. Provided there are no significant traffic changes, it’s feasible. There are plenty of reasons to hope that this will work beyond the economics. But, it’s only one piece of the puzzle, and not necessarily the most important piece, either.
Tempering Those Wonderful Toys
When it gets darker, the body releases a hormone called melatonin, which prepares it for sleep. A study showed that teens had greater melatonin suppression, which means that sleep can be delayed by light sensitivity. The blue light from electronic devices can keeping people up at night. LED bulbs have the same effect of delaying melatonin and pushing sleep times even later, especially if you’re dealing with a teen who not only has a heavy course load, but also loves to unwind with a smartphone or tab. So, how do you effectively combat this problem of screen time in a way that won’t interfere with the student’s ability to do homework? Special glasses? Blocking the Internet after a certain time?
Then there’s a bigger elephant…
Culture of Sleeplessness
This right here is the sticking point, whether people admit it or not. Sleeplessness is a badge of courage. It speaks of how hardworking you are without uttering a single syllable. Sleep is seen as a nuisance by many, and getting less of it is regimen to emulate, because the less sleep you get, the more you get done. Elon Musk reportedly gets fewer than seven hours a night and people are trying to figure out how he does it, because who doesn’t want to be a brilliant billionaire who picks fights on social media with guys helping to save trapped kids?
We live in a time when respect for our own biology is an anathema to fist-pumping success. Counteracting the culture of sleeplessness can’t be legislated, because it begins at home. The sooner it starts the better, because idea that sleep is something you’ll do when you’re dead tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, if you’re not careful.
If this does work, I hope it is just the first step, and it isn’t seen as the panacea. And to those high school students in early bird, or are taking extra university classes to help them catch the eyes of their future alma maters, get more sleep now before the world finds many twisted ways to tell you that chronic exhaustion is the only way you’ll ever succeed.