Just as kids across the country are heading back to school, an influential group of pediatricians say they should be allowed to sleep in later. According to a new policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), middle and high school students shouldn’t be required to start school before 8:30 in the morning — a change that could help prevent the widespread sleep deprivation that’s become the norm among American kids.
“The AAP is making a definitive and powerful statement about the importance of sleep to the health, safety, performance and well-being of our nation’s youth,” Dr. Judith Owens, who spearheaded the new policy statement, explained. Although schools aren’t required to follow the AAP’s guidance, Owens noted that the group’s official stance may provide “support and encouragement” to the school districts considering making a change to their schedules.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, most teens between the ages of 15 and 17 regularly sleep fewer than seven hours each night. That’s far short of the nine hours that doctors agree adolescents need. Over the past several years, a growing body of research has linked teens’ sleep deprivation to bad grades, poor health, and car crashes.
While some parents might argue that teens should just stop spending so much time online and go to sleep sooner, moving bedtimes earlier isn’t necessarily the solution. Researchers have found that teens’ sleep schedules are actually programmed differently than younger and older people’s. Most teenagers can’t easily fall asleep until about 11 p.m. and remain in a natural sleep cycle until at least 8 a.m. They’re developmentally driven to stay up later and sleep in later — but their schools are on totally different schedules, often starting before 7:30 a.m., which requires kids who take the bus to wake up around dawn.
That’s why, since the 1990s, there’s been a growing push to delay schools’ start times. The advocacy group Start School Later has mobilized parents across the country to fight for the policy change. Those activists are applauding the recent move from the AAP, which represents the first time the influential group has taken an official stance on this issue.
“What’s unique about the American Academy of Pediatrics’ statement is that it’s very specific,” Terra Ziporyn Snider, the executive director of Start School Later, told USA Today. “It says very clearly that high school and middle schools should not start before 8:30 a.m. for the sake of the health and sleep of our children. They draw the red line.”
Sleep deprivation is widely considered to be a public health issue that can have deadly consequences. By some researchers’ estimations, “drowsy driving” is just as dangerous as drunk driving, and about 100,000 of the annual car crashes in the U.S. result from drivers’ fatigue. Teens are most at risk for these type of car accidents — but it’s also a serious problem for public transportation workers and truck drivers, who are often pressured to work within a “culture of exhaustion” as they’re required to regularly work through the night or pick up overtime shifts.