Checking It Out: Why Teens Stay Up Late--and School Starts Early

It’s 10:45 p.m. and the light is still on in your teenager’s bedroom. Your child is not the slightest bit tired--but you know that waking him or her early for school the next morning will be torture.

It may be tempting to blame this behavior on computers, cellphones and coffee. And, in some cases, those are the prime reasons for nocturnal teen behavior.

But, researchers say, this late-to-bed and late-to-rise pattern is the way teenagers are biologically programmed--even though most school systems gloss over this when setting high school start times.

Some districts have respected the science enough to give teens more sleep-in time--and researchers have found a number of benefits, including improvements in attendance and daytime alertness and decreased depression.

But most school districts--including the vast majority of those in the greater Washington area--cite afterschool sports and other activities, bus routes, and other scheduling issues as reasons for starting between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m.

As a result, the majority of teens don’t get the 8 1/2 to 9 1/2 hours of sleep that experts say they should, according to the National Sleep Foundation. In fact, the average is about 7 hours of sleep a night for teens.

Watch exhausted teens walk into their high school on any given morning, eyes half-closed with coffee cup in hand, and you can see the scope of the problem. One study of Rhode Island teenagers found that 85 percent of teens got at least 10 hours of sleep per week less than they should. A Drexel University study found that only 20 percent of 12- to 18-year-olds studied got the recommended sleep on school nights.

Researchers over the past decade have learned that a teen’s body is different than those of younger and older people. Most teens can't easily fall asleep until about 11 p.m., experts say, and their brains stay in sleep mode until at least 8 a.m.

One study, for example, led by Brown University Professor Mary Carskadon, tested the saliva of teens, measuring the presence of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin at different times of the day.

Carskadon, who teaches human behavior and is director of sleep research at E.P. Bradley Hospital in Rhode Island, found that the melatonin levels rise later at night than they do in children and adults -- and remain at a higher level later in the morning.

Why melatonin is secreted in the teenage brain from about 11 p.m. until about 8 a.m. the next morning is unclear, experts say.

But experts say they do know that the consequences to teen sleep deprivation more serious than classrooms full of sleepy kids. Dr. Helene A. Emsellem, medical director of the Center for Sleep & Wake Disorders in Chevy Chase, Md., and author of “Snooze... or Lose!” wrote her in book that there are physical, emotional, academic and behavioral effects:

a) Going without enough sleep can make a teen more likely to get sick. Why? Because the number of T-cells in the body--cells which help us stay healthy--falls by 30 to 40 percent.

b) Sleep-deprived teens get more headaches than those that don’t.

c) Students who earn C’s and below go to sleep later and have less regular sleep patterns than students who get better grades. Sleep affects learning and memory.

d) Sleep-deprived teens are more likely to use alcohol and drugs than those who don’t.

Some school systems around the country have taken heed of the research findings and moved to start high school at later times. Pioneers were two Minneapolis-area school districts--Edina, a suburban district which changed its start time from 7:20 to 8:30 a.m. in the 1990s, and then Minneapolis Public Schools, which changed the start time for thousands of high school students from 7:15 a.m. to 8:40 a.m. in the 1997-98 school year.

The effects were studied for several years by researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement, led by director Kyla Wahlstrom.

They found that students were more alert and students reported higher grades (though how much higher is unclear). Meanwhile, some sports practices were shortened but sports continued, as did after-school jobs.

Since then more than 80 school districts have changed their start times, according to the sleep foundation, including Arlington Public Schools, which gave high school students 45 extra minutes to sleep starting in 2001. No studies were done on the effects but students reported being more alert.

In Jessamine County in Kentucky, according to a case study by the sleep foundation, the school district swapped the starting times of elementary school with high school in 2003. Though young children have no biological problem going to sleep early and waking up early, elementary school started later than high school.

Before the change, high school started at 7:30 a.m., middle school at 7:40 a.m. and elementary school at 8:30 a.m.. Afterward, elementary school started at 8 a.m., middle school at 8:50 a.m. and high school at 8:40 a.m. School officials said students quickly were more alert and focused on their studies.

Here’s the bad news: There are more than 13,000 school districts in the country, and hundreds of thousands of teens still practically sleep-walk to class.

Is your child one of those students? How do you handle this? What time does your teen go to school, how awake are they and what do you see as the consequences?

By Valerie Strauss  |  October 6, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Sleep , Checking It Out , Health  | Tags: teens and sleep Share This:  E-Mail | Technorati | | Digg | Stumble Previous: Should Shakespeare Be Required Reading?
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DD is up at 5:30 am and out the door at 6:20 to catch her bus at 6:34 am. She definitely could use more sleep.

Posted by: winker425 | October 6, 2009 9:32 AM | Report abuse

"One study of Rhode Island teenagers found that 85 percent of teens got at least 10 hours of sleep less than they should."

What does this mean?

"at least 10 hours less sleep than they should" ??? over what time period? per day? per week? per month?

Posted by: ocouha | October 6, 2009 9:58 AM | Report abuse

Too many parents find the idea of changing this unappealing for fairly stupid and selfish reasons. I doubt facts, science, and test results will triumph over a cranky, put upon parent.

The very same people who don't want to change any of this also moan a lot about teens having "too much free time after school".

This is one of those issues so dominated by stupidity that it is just not worth trying to fight very much about. Arguing with willful idiots is a fools game, and this is one subject that brings on a fools parade pretty quickly.

Posted by: timscanlon | October 6, 2009 10:06 AM | Report abuse

When I was in high school (in the 1970's), nobody stayed up past 10 on school nights. Nowadays, parents don't really care about their kids: they let them do whatever they want to avoid a fight. Kids today are less healthy because parents feed them junk food, and let them stay up all night. Somebody needs to stand up and say this is wrong, and get the kids back on a normal schedule. Stop the pampering!

The research you present is NOT meaningful because staying up late could cause the chemical differences (rather than the chemicals causing the behavior). You need a scientist to look at your reports before you publish them. You're doing a disservice here.

Posted by: tina5 | October 6, 2009 10:07 AM | Report abuse

I'd say tina5 is making timscanlon's point.

Posted by: esocci | October 6, 2009 10:27 AM | Report abuse

It's not that simple to pu into effect. A proposal by the Fairfax board to follow this advice - which would also help parents of younger children get to work earlier with earlier elementary school bell schedules - turned out to be very unpopular not only among teens who wanted to continue with extracurricular activities, but also among younger children (including mine) who resented the proposed new schedule that would get them home from middle school at 4:30. It's hard to change culturally ingrained practices.

Posted by: rhinoceri | October 6, 2009 11:08 AM | Report abuse

Its ok to continue to allow our children to be entitled for anything... Afterall, NONE Of it is their fault or their parents fault right?

Lets just accomodate everything they find to be a chore so that they dont have to learn what disappointment is until they live in the real world outside our borders...

... Oh wait, we are already doing that...

Posted by: indep2 | October 6, 2009 11:09 AM | Report abuse


Yes, but tina5 is also making a more valid point--that the article at times does not clearly delineate between correlation and causation.

The most revealing sentence in the entire article is this one:

"Why melatonin is secreted in the teenage brain from about 11 p.m. until about 8 a.m. the next morning is unclear, experts say."

Posted by: JoeSchmoe06 | October 6, 2009 11:12 AM | Report abuse

Part of the problem with pushing the HS kids later is that many parents have high-school aged siblings watch their younger kids before the parents get home from work but after they get out of school, and thus their getting home after the younger kids didn't work so well for many families' schedules. (This was the reason the local school system wouldn't let the HS kids go to school later, or so they said.)

Posted by: | October 6, 2009 11:21 AM | Report abuse

I wonder how many of the people who oppose later starting times for high schools have flextime.
Trying to be realistic here, although realism is sometimes unpopular. After school activities are not sacrosanct. Much can be done in an hour after school ends for the day. What's being done that takes so long? Can it be done in less time? (Sports? They don't have to take much time unless your priorities include winning championships every year and preparing people for the pros. Theater? No reason why a high school production needs to have Broadway production values.)
After school jobs, in most cases, aren't sacrosanct. In some instances, it's important for students to work and contribute to their family's support, and there's little that can be done about that. On the other hand, if the reason for the after-school job is so the student can have a car or new designer jeans, shouldn't we question how many hours the job should consume?
Or do we have early openings just so that we can remind students who's in charge and prepare them to get up early to do drone-like jobs (that aren't as plentiful as they used to be)?

Posted by: jlhare1 | October 6, 2009 12:22 PM | Report abuse

"Why melatonin is secreted in the teenage brain from about 11 p.m. until about 8 a.m. the next morning is unclear, experts say."

"When I was in high school (in the 1970's), nobody stayed up past 10 on school nights."

I also never stayed up past 10 on school nights. I don't recall lying awake either. Why not?

Was anybody measuring melatonin back then? Is anyone measuring melatonin among teens of populations where it is common to go to bed earlier (Amish?)?

Posted by: janedoe5 | October 6, 2009 12:33 PM | Report abuse

The start time for high schools has always puzzled me. We know that teenagers need more sleep and that biologically they are on a different schedule than adults. We know that as teenagers, we could barely stay awake for classes before 10 AM. We know that most crime is committed between 3:00 and 6:00 PM - a time when the kids are out but the parent's are not home.

Knowing what we know, is there anything besides a vein attempt to worship our tradition of early rising that justifies us continuing our practice of compelling teens to get on a schedule they cannot maintain?

If I were running a school district, there would be three major reforms. First, the school would run from 10:30-6:00pm. Second, accounting, microeconomics, and macroeconomics would be mandatory classes. If the purpose of high school is to prepare you for the "real world," then it is unclear why we force kids to take high level math classes that the majority will never use while simultaneously depriving them of accounting an economics lessons - two fields which could have helped us avert the current financial crisis if they were better understood. Third, schools must focus on the physical health of their students. As a kid, I remember almost falling asleep after lunch on a daily basis. Whether this was a result of me waking up at 5:45am or whether it was a result of the horrifically unhealthy school lunches is unclear. What is clear is that America is killing its kids with fat and junk food. Real nutrition and health classes must be taught, soda has to go, and the school lunch program must be reformed.

Posted by: Christopherjhan | October 6, 2009 12:40 PM | Report abuse

I'm thankful that 40 years ago, when I went through high school, the start time was 9:00 am. Very civilized. I'm surprised researchers haven't gone back to older data, when there were natural "experiments" with changing these start times, to see what the impact was on grades. (9-3:30 central IL public schools. We had sports, jobs and PE everyday.)

Posted by: pbassjbass | October 6, 2009 1:09 PM | Report abuse

"Watch exhausted teens walk into their high school on any given morning, eyes half-closed with coffee cup in hand"

Do kids do this? I wasn't a coffee drinking until late in high school, but I certainly never took a cup of coffee into class. Might've helped, but of course, no food or drink were permitted in the classroom when I was in high school, 1984-1988.

Posted by: Discman | October 6, 2009 1:19 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the article. I'm passing it around, first to my wife, then to my other teen parent friends. By the way, all these people I know are pro-science, as are most Americans, regardless of what some people may tell you. The earth is NOT 10,000 years old, for example.

Anyway, rant aside, the science presented here explains why, after a long and full day, I can't get junior to either stop that silly on-line virtual farm game or turn off Adult Swim. That kid is wearing us out, then like you've noted, good luck trying to get him out the door at 6:30 a.m. for class.

Posted by: tony_in_Durham_NC | October 6, 2009 2:16 PM | Report abuse

I wish Fairfax County would start high school later. I can't understand why offices are 9-5 and schools are 7-2. How can parents possibly be there at 2 and why do we have to get our children off to school so much earlier?

Posted by: DWinFC | October 6, 2009 2:19 PM | Report abuse

In case you're wondering, we have a caffeine ban for our 16 year old on week nights. We do not use articial sweeteners and most meals are home-made. That said, I still wonder about what these kids are eating and drinking all day?

Our TV is in the family room, along with our computer. Not in junior's bedroom.

I'm not that concerned with "causation" or "correlation," right now. At least I have some facts to work with. I can see some folks responding here aren't interested in facts of any kind.

If you take this "causation"/"correlation" thread far enough, wouldn't you be suggesting a pre-8pm bedtime for these kids? That's not going to happen for anyone.

Having a negative knee-jerk reaction to science doesn't bode well for our society. The anti-science crowd is causing enough problems, if you ask me.

Posted by: tony_in_Durham_NC | October 6, 2009 2:25 PM | Report abuse

Why don't we look at the evidence that already exists?

I taught and coached at a late starting high school (9:30 AM- 4:10 PM) for 23 years from 1982-2005.

Many students were typically very tired and vitually sleepwalking through the day.


It was because they stayed up even later once they adjusted to the later schedule by staying up even later.

Attendace and being late to school was a very significant problem in our late starting school.


It was because more students overslept and missed the bus since their parents left for work prior to the students waking up and getting ready for school.

Why should we hypothesize and experiment when attendance and tardy data is already available from the schools who have tried this approach?

Unfortunately there is no substitute for parenting. If a teenager has trouble getting up in the morning, then make them go to sleep earlier. Everyone has to be accountable for their choices including teachers, parents, and children.

You could start schools at noon but the problem will not magically go away.

Posted by: joebelanger600 | October 6, 2009 2:30 PM | Report abuse

" measuring the presence of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin at different times of the day."
Melatonin only gets produced in complete darkness... before the electric light bulb, people read by candle light and fell asleep much sooner so they could get up with dawn's early light. now computer/tv/cell phones are on 24/7....and yes, teens do drink coffee--thanks to the fat/sugar added by starbucks in fancy coffee drinks, they're now addicted to caffiene and can't fall asleep as easily...too wired by caffine/light/technology. OF COURSE they can't get their still growing brains up in the a,m. Brain/ Body needs sleep to process what we've learned during day teens are stunting their growth just at the time their brains are supposed to be still maturing. Can't we all just agree to stop the maddness and go to bed early? Everyone is going to start behaving like ppl who work the night shift (poor health, traffic accidents, depression, weight gain, etc etc) Tina5 you're on to something.

Posted by: sgoewey | October 6, 2009 2:31 PM | Report abuse

janedoe5: GREAT idea to study the Amish teen habits... we can learn alot about "progress" by studying their "lack" thereof...

Posted by: sgoewey | October 6, 2009 2:35 PM | Report abuse


Thanks to "ocouha," who pointed out two dropped words in the post. It should read:

One study of Rhode Island teenagers found that 85 percent of teens got at least 10 hours of sleep PER WEEK less than they should."

And in relation to janedoe5's memories of going to bed around 10 p.m. in the 1970s during high school.... The Sheet turned out the lights about 10 o'clock too in the early 70s during high school, but remembers not falling asleep easily at all, often for well over an hour. Anybody remember what they did in high school?

Posted by: straussv | October 6, 2009 2:40 PM | Report abuse

I'm a night owl, always have been, even when I was a kid. I have ALWAYS found it difficult to get to sleep before 1 a.m. - my entire life, even if I'm exhausted. I never understood why school didn't start later. There's no reason it has to be so early. OR, they should have an option for the early-rising kids and the late-risers to have different school schedules. But that would be hard to staff, and a nightmare to coordinate. But I can dream....

Posted by: undercover_hon | October 6, 2009 2:40 PM | Report abuse

You could start schools at noon but the problem will not magically go away.

Actually, for my husband it did, his grades shot right up in college when you could PICK your class times (and TOPICS!) ! H.S. is boring and starts too early for night owls...and even larks like me. (that was true in 70s too)

Posted by: sgoewey | October 6, 2009 2:47 PM | Report abuse

When I was in high school back in the 50s, I had to be at school at 8:30AM and got out of school at 4:00pm. We had six periods a day (two study halls or they could be used for band, choir, etc.) and an hour for lunch. I was always on time, as was the rest of my school classmates. And, the teachers, I am sure, were better rested as they came in later, and, had two hours a day to complete their "homework" before they went home. I don't EVER remember any of them complaining about our homework dragging them away from their "fun".

I have always been a "night person" and when I got to college and could ditch the required 8am class, I never had a class before 9am or 10am (if I could manage it). The teachers, I am sure, were better rested, too.

But, today, the lazy teachers want to get out and have fun at 1:30pm. I can just hear my high schools teacher saying, "What has become of the teaching profession."

Posted by: PalmSpringsGirl | October 6, 2009 7:33 PM | Report abuse

Opposition to later start times in Fairfax County defied explication - or so it seemed until you realized that there was no underlying rationale for opposing later start times that had anything to do with academics or health. Opponents included those who oppose any change to anything that might impact their lives in any way, those worried more about their children's happiness than their success (and who therefore favored extra-curricular activities over academics), school employees who didn't want their work hours changed - regardless of the benefits that would accrue to those in their charge, and those who refused to believe the science behind the proposals.
As Tom Scanlon put it so succinctly in an early comment, fighting with such people is a fool's game. I certainly learned my lesson, and structured my child's schedule so that her first period is meaningless and we can let her skip it. She resisted, missing the pre-school socialization, until she had inadvertently slept in a few days. She found that very much to her liking.
The lesson here is to forget changing the system for everyone's benefit. Simply find a way to make it work for you. That can be done, though it's a real shame that we are forced to do that.

Posted by: LoveIB | October 7, 2009 8:07 AM | Report abuse

Before reaching any conclusion more study is needed. Let's look at the Amish or rural teens in other countries. Do they have problems getting up early?

Posted by: bnichols6 | October 7, 2009 8:45 AM | Report abuse

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