From Po and Ash:
(Note: This post continues the conversation from our New York magazine stories
Stephen Farrell is Assistant Headmaster and Dean of Faculty of the elite prep school, Choate-Rosemary Hall. Traditionally, boarding schools hold classes six days a week, but recently, Farrell led the movement to make a controversial change that separated Choate from its peer schools – Phillips Exeter, Groton, and the like. Choate eliminated Saturday classes. Farrell did so for one reason. His students were exhausted. Farrell had seen enough of the sleep research (and heard enough complaints from the school pediatrician) to be convinced that his students’ academic and physical well-being would improve if they slept in an extra day a week.
Even after the switch, Choate’s staff pediatrician regularly warns Farrell that some students are so sleep deprived that they are jeopardizing their physical and psychological welfare. Farrell has tried to tinker with lights-out policies in the dorms and forbidding use of phones and computers use after midnight, but the complaints are too loud from parents, faculty, and students. “These are kids who don’t want to be reined in,” Farrell explained. But they’re not inhuman. On confidential surveys, his students report crashing on holidays, sleeping 15 hours a night during the entire vacation.
While all kids are impacted by sleep loss, for teenagers, sleep is a special challenge.
University of Kentucky’s Dr. Fred Danner has studied how, on a national level, sleep decreases each year during high school. In their first year, 60% of kids got at least 8 hours on average. By the second year, that was down to 30%. Right alongside this decline went their moods; dropping below eight hours doubled the rate of clinical-level
depression. Over one-eighth of the students reached this classification, which makes one only wonder how many more suffer from melancholy of a lesser degree.
Brown University’s Dr. Mary Carskadon has demonstrated that during puberty, the circadian system – the biological clock – does a “phase shift” that keeps adolescents up later. In prepubescents and grownups, when it gets dark outside, our brains produce melatonin, which makes us sleepy. But adolescent brains don’t release melatonin for another 90 minutes. So even if they’re in bed at 10 p.m (which they aren’t), they lay awake, staring at the ceiling. It's possible that this played some evolutionary role, back when teens needed to leave the tribe and explore or hunt.
Awakened at dawn by alarm clocks, teen brains are still releasing melatonin. This pressures them to fall back asleep – either in first period at school or, more dangerously, during the drive to school. Which is one of the reasons young adults are responsible for more than half of the 100,000 “fall asleep” crashes annually.
“We thought the evidence was staggering,” Carole Young-Kleinfeld recalled.
Kleinfeld is a mother in Wilton, Connecticut, thirty miles up I-95 from New York City. Wilton, too, had saved money by running busses in two shifts, starting the high school at 7:35. Then a few years ago, she was at a meeting for the local League of Women Voters. Then-state senator Kevin Sullivan spoke about Carskadon and others’ research, and how starting high school at a more reasonable hour was the answer.
Kleinfeld had a sullen teenager of her own, and when she went to local high schools to register kids to vote, she regularly saw students sleeping in the halls during class. So the idea hit home. She and others formed a committee to learn about the issue. Eventually, they convinced the district to move the high school’s start time to 8:20.
For Kleinfeld, the change “was a Godsend.”
Her son Zach had once been a perfectly happy kid, but when he hit high school he became the prototypical disengaged, unenthralled-by-everything teen. He was so negative, so withdrawn that “I really thought we’d lost him,” Kleinfeld sighed. “We’d lost that sense of connection.”
After the high school start time shifted, Kleinfeld couldn’t believe it. “We got our kid back.” Zack would bound downstairs in the morning with a smile, wanting to share a funny story he’d read in The Onion. His SAT scores went up, too.
Several scholars have noted that many hallmark traits of modern adolescence – moodiness, impulsiveness, disengagement – are also symptoms of chronic sleep deprivation. Might our culture-wide perception of what it means to be a teenager be unwittingly skewed by the fact they don’t get enough sleep?
University of Pittsburgh’s Ronald Dahl agrees, observing: “Is it adding one percent or sixty percent, we don’t know. But clearly a lack of sleep makes it much worse.”