Chronic Teen Sleep Deprivation and the Biology of Adolescence

Contributed by Meri Gruber

I have been researching the topic of teen sleep deprivation and have prepared this backgrounder:

Chronic Teen Sleep Deprivation and the Biology of Adolescence

A growing body of research shows that most teens suffer from chronic sleep
deprivation, due to a biological change that occurs during adolescence. It is well documented that such sleep deprivation impairs the ability to be alert, pay attention, solve problems, cope with stress and retain information. In consequence it:

.       Reduces academic results
.       Reduces athletic performance
.       Increases physical and mental health problems.

Ending sleep deprivation in teens represents a challenge for school districts because:

.       Many adults unfamiliar with the research have a knee-jerk reaction that teens who are tired in the morning are “just lazy” or “should go to bed earlier,” when the cause is a biological one.
.       Over-scheduling by parents or students is not the main cause.
.       Only changes in school and district scheduling policy can make a significant difference.

“Research shows the typical adolescent's natural time to fall asleep may be 11 pm or later; because of this change in their internal clocks, teens may feel wide awake at bedtime, even when they are exhausted (Wolfson & Carskadon, 1998). This leads to sleep deprivation in many teens who must wake up early for school.”

School districts around the country have implemented later school start times to impressive outcomes:

.       23.4% Net decrease in teen crash rates
“Average crash rates for teen drivers in the study county in the two years after the change in school start time dropped 16.5 percent compared to the two years prior to the change, while teen crash rates for the rest of the state increased 7.8 percent over the same time period. ”

.       212 Point increase in SAT scores
“The best known of these is in Edina, Minnesota, an affluent suburb of Minneapolis, where the high school start time was changed from 7:25 a.m. to 8:30. The results were startling. In the year preceding the time change, math and verbal SAT scores for the top 10 percent of Edina's students averaged 1288. A year later, the top 10 percent averaged 1500, an increase that couldn't be attributed to any other variable.”

.       15 minutes of sleep is worth a grade point
“Dr. Kyla Wahlstrom of the University of Minnesota surveyed more than 7,000 high schoolers in Minnesota about their sleep habits and grades. Teens who received A's averaged about fifteen more minutes sleep than the B students, who in turn averaged eleven more minutes than the C's, and the C's had ten more minutes than the D's. Wahlstrom's data was an almost perfect replication of results from an earlier study of more than 3,000 Rhode Island high schoolers by Brown's Mary Carskadon. Certainly, these are averages, but the consistency of the two studies stands out. Every fifteen minutes counts.”

.       Better sports results, more participation
The Wilton School District, Connecticut has five schools with 4300 students and made a 40-minute change in start times. “Wilton is a self-described ‘sports town' and feared that any change in the high school start time would jeopardize status in their athletic conference. In fact, despite some challenges for students who had to be pulled out of class early for away games or who were participating in more than one sport, Wilton High School had one of its best athletic seasons earning several state championships and saw a continued rise in participation after the start time change.”

These are just a selection. Additional case studies are available at the
Sleep Foundation Website.

While there is progress to be made on the sleep loss related to staying up too late due to other demands (i.e., over-scheduling, homework), teen sleep deprivation is not correctable in this way. For grade school children, parents can set and enforce a bedtime. Once students enter adolescence, most can't get to sleep before late evening because of their biological clock, and no amount of parent schedule setting or reduction in commitments is going to change this. Teens need developmentally appropriate school schedules to address and correct sleep deprivation.

While changing school start times is by far the most effective way to address chronic teen sleep deprivation, there are other steps that can be taken towards healthier and more age-appropriate schedules. The comprehensive research on the issue of teen sleep deprivation has shown that there are many incremental steps school districts could take. By making the ending of teen sleep deprivation a district priority, and moving activities later where possible school districts can make an immediate difference. Examples are scheduling finals later in the day, moving staff meetings to mornings, and shaving minutes in the daily schedule. The research is clear: “every 15 minutes counts.”

For more information, please leave a comment for Meri Gruber.

1. “Backgrounder: Later School Start Times”
2.  “Adolescent sleep, school start times, and teen motor vehicle crashes.”
3. “Starting High School One Hour Later May Reduce Teen Traffic Accidents”
4. “Snooze or Lose”
5. Ibid.
6.  “Changing School Start Times: Wilton, Connecticut”

7.”Changing School Start Time Case Studies”

8. Teenagers Sleep

4 thoughts on “Chronic Teen Sleep Deprivation and the Biology of Adolescence”

  1. Patty Parks-Wasserman

    In our community, as I would imagine it is in most areas, the bus scheduling is what dictates the particularly early start in the day for high school. First the fleet of buses take the children to high schools; then the next round is to middle school, then last of all is the elementary schools. Seems we have this backwards for not only the biological clock of the teenagers, which is set to sleep in later, but also for that of the elementary children which is set to rise so much earlier. Also, at the end of the day, seems to me it would serve the younger ones better to get off earlier, when they tire earlier, and need to fit in a commonly tight schedule of activities before an earlier bedtime than that of the teen.

  2. Our family counseling agency has been trying for years to impress on our families the importance of sleep, which is often underestimated (even by medical and counseling, not to mention educational professionals) especially during adolescent development. Let’s mount a national campaign to get better school schedules as a priority for our children’s health!

  3. Columnist Molly Ivins once said that in her estimation, institutions should be disbanded every 10 years because that’s about how long it takes for human institutions to ossify. This research has been out for years now and still teens are being ‘tortured’; punished, humiliated, reprimanded, so-called disciplined for behaviors that can be directly related to sleep-deprivation. It’s our loss if those kids have to grow up to finally change the status-quo.

  4. I’m very concerned about my daughter. She is 14 and only gets about five hours of sleep at night. It affects her mood greatly and clearly her mood. The question I have is what do you do in the meantime. She comes home and sleeps four hours or until 7pm. Should I let her nap or not…..

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