Commentary: Let tired teens sleep

By Tami Silverman
Special to TheStatehouseFile.com

Our teens are tired. Nearly 8 in 10 Indiana high school students sleep less than the recommended eight hours on school nights. Yet adequate sleep is an integral part of healthy development and consequences of adolescent sleep deprivation are well-documented. Parents can take steps to ensure teens get the sleep they need, and many school districts are helping by adjusting school start times.

Tami Silverman is the president and CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute.

Many high school and middle school students face increases in schoolwork and school activities, just as natural changes alter their sleep needs. “There’s a clear biological change that happens during and after puberty that leads teenagers to want to fall asleep later and sleep later in the morning, said Dr. Sarah Honaker, a pediatric sleep specialist at Riley Hospital for Children. This internal change makes it difficult for many teens to fall asleep before 11 p.m. or midnight.

Decreased sleep associated with later bedtimes and early wake times can lead to dangerous consequences. The American Academy of Pediatrics states potential risks of adolescent chronic sleep loss include behavior issues, learning problems, poor impulse control and academic challenges. Research also links insufficient teen sleep with increased risk of fall-asleep car crashes, medical problems and self-harm, including suicidal thoughts and attempts.

In 2014, the AAP recommended that middle and high schools delay the start of school to 8:30 a.m. or later. Research shows delayed start times allow for more school-night sleep, can improve attendance and enhance academic performance. The Brookings Institute connects later start times with increased benefits for lower-income students, creating another path to closing achievement gaps.

Yet shifting school start times is complex with many potential concerns, including reduced time for afterschool activities or part-time jobs, potential safety issues, and family childcare and schedule challenges. Many districts opt to “flip” elementary schedules with middle and/or high schools, adding concerns about effects on younger children and other logistical concerns.

Several Indiana school districts have shifted or plan to shift to later start times this year. Start times in our state vary greatly, ranging from 7:15 a.m. to 9:15 a.m. Zionsville School Corporation Superintendent Dr. Scott Robison reports his district spent a year developing its “flip,” slated to start this year.

“We certainly had to look at the kinds of opportunities and activities we present for students after school,” Robison said. “We didn’t want to infringe upon those and make them go later into the evening. That really precipitated deep discussion about what this would mean, and obviously months of more discussion and public input.”

As parents, many of us enforced structured bedtime routines for our young children. It’s equally important to be involved in a teen’s sleep routines and talk about the importance of sleep. We should limit our children’s caffeine, reduce or eliminate late-night screen time, encourage regular exercise and plan at least 30 minutes of downtime before bed. Dr. Honaker says letting teens sleep-in on the weekends can help, but cautions against varying weekday and weekend sleep patterns by more than two hours. Above all, experts suggest that parents must model positive sleep routines.

The evidence is clear that our teens are not getting enough sleep and the consequences of chronic sleep deprivation are real. Teenagers are still children who are developing, growing and need eight hours of sleep per night. With today’s hectic schedules, finding more sleep time seems like a tall order. Yet parents, guardians, schools and health care providers must join forces to ensure that our kids get the restorative sleep time they need to recharge and flourish.    

Tami Silverman is the president and CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. She may be reached at iyi@iyi.org or on Twitter at @Tami_IYI.

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