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Pediatrics group: Schools should let teens sleep in

By Elizabeth Simpson The Virginian-Pilot

By Elizabeth Simpson The Virginian-Pilot

By Elizabeth Simpson
The Virginian-Pilot
© August 25, 2014

Just in time for school, the country’s largest pediatric organization has issued a recommendation that teens will be waving in the faces of principals: Let students in middle and high schools sleep in a little!

The policy, released today by the American Academy of Pediatrics, recommends that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. It’s the first such policy for the group, though its journal has published numerous studies linking teen sleepiness to poor school performance and more car accidents.

Researchers say teens’ biorhythm cycles shift during puberty, making it hard for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m.

High schools in Chesapeake and Suffolk start at about the recommended time, but Norfolk, Virginia Beach and Portsmouth start an hour earlier. Middle schools are a mixed bag, ranging from 7:25 a.m. in Suffolk to 9:20 a.m. in Virginia Beach.

As sleep research has grown, school start times have been a subject of discussion for local school boards. At a July retreat, for instance, Virginia Beach board members discussed the pros and cons of later start times for high school students: more sleep in mornings for teens on the plus side, but less time after school for jobs and extracurricular activities.

The board delayed any decision until January to give a new superintendent more time to settle in and to avoid delving into the controversial issue until after School Board elections.

Virginia Beach spokeswoman Kathleen O’Hara said that transportation also figures into the equation, along with family child-care needs: “One thing we hear often from some parents is they depend on their older children to provide care for younger siblings when they are at work,” O’Hara said in an email response.

It’s an issue across a country where an estimated 40 percent of high schools start before 8 a.m., according to the academy. More than 20 percent of middle schools start at 7:45 a.m. or earlier.

Dr. Judith Owens, lead author of the policy statement, said that adolescents’ sleep-wake cycles begin to shift up to two hours later at the start of puberty, and that studies have shown that a lack of sleep can contribute to depression, high blood pressure and obesity.

“The evidence has been steadily accumulating to show sleep-deprivation risks, and to support delaying school start times as a counterbalance,” said Owens, director of sleep medicine at Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C.

She and other researchers at the hospital have been working with Fairfax County schools on a study tracking teens and sleep. The research could lead to pushing back start times in Fairfax high schools by an hour in 2015.

According to a 2006 study by the National Sleep Foundation, 59 percent of students in the sixth through eighth grades and 87 percent of high school students get less than the recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep on school nights.

Sleepiness is not just pinned to early school bells, however.

Homework, extracurricular activities and jobs also contribute. “Teens are overscheduled, and that cuts into sleep,” Owens said.

Also fighting against sleep are smart phones and other electronic devices with an endless stream of text messages, tweets, and Facebook and Instagram postings. “Many teens sleep with their cell phones next to them on the pillow,” Owens said. The light from the screen and the stimulation of reading and text-messaging suppresses hormones that bring on sleep.

The academy recommends that pediatricians counsel teens and parents about healthy sleep habits, including enforcing a media curfew.

Owens said parents should also make getting enough sleep a condition for permission to drive a car.

“Letting a teen drive sleep-deprived is the equivalent of letting them drive after three or four beers,” Owens said. “Families need to start taking sleep seriously.”

Elizabeth Simpson, 757-222-5003, elizabeth.simpson@pilotonline.com

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