Sleep in, start school later works for teens

Last updated 05:00 05/09/2010
A yawning student
TIRED STUDENTS: New research shows that the mroe technology a teen has in their bedroom the less sleep they get.

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Everyone knows teenagers like to stay up late and sleep in – and even then they're grumpy.

But now a study has found if teens start the school day after 10am they're likely to be more alert, get more sleep and be in a better mood.

Thanks to almost 700 Year 9, 11 and 12 pupils at Wellington High School, researchers now have the first scientific data about how New Zealand teenage sleep patterns can benefit from schools changing their start times.

But here's the catch: teens with iPods, MP3 players, computers or gaming consoles in their bedrooms are getting less sleep – and the more technology they have, the less sleep they're getting.

Those are the findings of a study conducted by Massey University's Sleep/Wake Research Centre that compared the results to an earlier study carried out before Wellington High changed its start times for senior pupils.

The later start time of 10.15am, introduced in 2002, reflects the findings of other research which shows teenagers need eight to nine hours' sleep a night.

That is about the same as younger children, however a biological shift during puberty means their bodies are programmed to go to sleep much later, meaning that as the teenage years progress, average sleep times decrease.

Researcher Brigid Borlase said the problem was not so much how much sleep teens were having, but the opportunity to actually get it.

"The onset of sleep in younger children is much earlier. By about 9 or 9.30pm, their bodies tell them it is time to go to sleep. But teenagers may not be physically ready to sleep until about midnight or later."

Borlase said that then left them only five or six hours for good quality sleep on a school night.

Less sleep meant concentration was not as good and teens were less able to function normally. "It then affects learning and achievement and there were also reports that the general wellbeing among teens tend to be lower in students who are chronically sleep-deprived."

But the researchers found the later start time at Wellington High School was extremely beneficial for teenage sleep patterns.

Compared to the earlier study, students felt more alert and were less likely to report losing sleep on a school night. Borlase said it appeared the teens were using the extra time before school started to sleep more.

The findings sit alongside a US study which found teens starting school later in the day had fewer car accidents and ate healthier breakfasts. They also missed fewer classes.

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Wellington High principal Prue Kelly said while the later start times hadn't taught students "punctuality skills", it had had a positive impact on students.

Senior pupils could still choose to start earlier if they wanted to fit in extra subjects, but otherwise began school at 10.15 and finished at 3.20pm, the same time as other pupils. "We just condense it all and the students work harder for the time they are there."

Later school start times are rare in New Zealand but Education Minister Anne Tolley believes the rules governing hours are outdated and there should be more flexibility if schools felt it would improve student performance.

Tolley has recently written to schools advising them she has the ability to vary the rules on a case-by-case basis provided widespread consultation has taken place and it will not result in students spending less time at school than others in comparable schools.

The Kiwi research also looked at the technology teenagers had access to in their bedrooms and the findings mirrored international data showing the more there is, the less sleep they got.

Borlase suspected that even when a teen's body was telling them it was time to sleep, activities like texting and games were keeping them awake.

Meanwhile, Australian research has found sleep deprivation in young people may trigger serious mental illnesses that persist into adulthood. Young adults who habitually sleep fewer than five hours a night are three times more likely to develop psychiatric disorders, according to the research.

- Sunday Star Times

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