Suzanne Hood, Episcopal University
Returning to face-to-face classes this fall may have the unintended consequence that many high school students will be deprived of sleep.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, many teenagers suffered from chronic lack of sleep during the week, putting them at greater risk of poor health and more sleepiness in the classroom.
The pandemic caused upheaval in school education, but it introduced some scheduling flexibilities that paradoxically allowed some teenagers to catch up on their sleep.
Could we use this break to make evidence-based changes in education to improve teenagers sleep? Research suggests that this would help secondary school students live healthier and more productive years.
Harmful Effects of Sleep Deprivation
Concern about the harmful effects of sleep deprivation on adolescents is great, especially as adolescents are still developing.
In pre-pandemic times, international studies showed that only about two-thirds of Canadian teenagers got the eight to ten hours of school sleep recommended for 12-18 year olds, and the picture was worse in many European countries and the United States .
Insufficient sleep is linked to a variety of negative outcomes in adolescence, including an increased risk of obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure, as well as depression, suicidality and substance abuse. It is also linked to deficits in attention and memory.
Importantly, research plays a key role in sleep in academic performance: adolescents who sleep irregularly or poorly may have poorer grades and may be absent or late more often. Chronic sleep deprivation can not only increase a young person’s risk of later health problems, but it can also affect their career opportunities and future earning potential.
Ready to wake up two hours after adults
Sleep deprivation, recognized by the Canadian Health Department and Centers for Disease Control as a major public health problem, is alarming among teenagers.
Contributing to the susceptibility of teenagers to sleep deprivation is a conflict between traditional school start times (as early as 8 a.m. in some parts of Canada) and normal developmental changes in the sleep cycle that cause the average teen to feel ready to sleep for around two hours and wake up later than younger children and adults.
Added to this are other factors such as teenagers’ greater independence in choosing their bedtime and the use of light-emitting screens which, when used in the evening, can disrupt night sleep and delay the body’s internal clock.
Sleep researcher Mary Carskadon has described this combination of biological, behavioral, and social influences as the “perfect storm” that creates the best conditions for teenagers to accumulate “sleep debts” during the school week. This makes many of them too sleepy to attend classes effectively and leads to trouble sleeping on the weekends.
To calm this storm, some school districts have experimented with later school start times. Overall, these experiments were largely successful, with students reporting more nightly sleep and less sleepiness in the classroom with later start times.
Given this evidence, organizations like the American Pediatric Society and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommend that high schools do not start classes until 8:30 a.m.
Other interventions, such as the introduction of sleep health education programs in the classroom, have also shown benefits for children and, in some ways, for adolescents. For example, a study of 12th grade students showed that short-term, classroom-based education programs improved students’ knowledge about the role of sleep in health. These students also spent more time in bed during the week than students who did not receive the program. However, these benefits of participating in the program did not result in changes that reduced students’ daytime sleepiness.
Pandemic: more sleep, insomnia
Conditions during COVID-19 lockdown periods opened a unique window for observing teenagers’ sleep patterns once students no longer had to commute to the classroom. Several studies showed that teenagers slept more because they slept longer in the morning and felt more rested and more alert during online training classes, suggesting that extra sleep helped them keep busy with their studies.
It’s important to note that other studies have reported more sleep disorders in some teenagers, which could be partly due to anxiety, depressed mood, and fewer opportunities to get outside.
However, being able to rest a little later in the morning might allow teenagers to offset some of the effects of a disturbed night’s sleep. All in all, what we have learned about both getting more sleep in teenagers and teenagers’ sleep disorders during the pandemic provides further evidence of greater flexibility in school planning to improve teenage sleep health.
Pandemic school shifts
While some schools have schedules planned to accommodate things like physical distancing and class bubbles, could this be an opportunity to test out delayed or flexible school start times?
A staggered start of school throughout the day could, for example, have the double advantage that later aspiring students can start their school day a little later and the number of students in school is reduced at the same time, which promotes physical distance and perhaps better distribution of resources across the school Day.
School districts in some other parts of the world are implementing this plan and it will be exciting to see how the schedule changes play out.
Read more: How Much Sleep Do Teenagers Really Need?
However, the policy change is slow. So what can be done now to improve teenage sleep health? Accepting sleep recommendations can help establish healthier sleep routines.
Parents can’t go wrong with helping teenagers by doing basic things like turning off the screen at least an hour before bed, encouraging regular outdoor activities in daylight, limiting caffeine intake (including energy drinks) during the day – and trying Maintain a regular daily bedtime and wake-up time, including on weekends.
Great bilingual resources are also available through campaigns like Sleep On It! (developed by the Canadian Sleep and Circadian Network), the Canadian Sleep Society, Fondation Sommeil and Wake Up Narcolepsy Canada.
Suzanne Hood, Associate Professor of Psychology, Bishop’s University
This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.