An Expert's Opinion on Teen Sleep Deprivation

The discussion of school start times continues with an interview with Dr. Terra Snider, co-founder of Start School Later.


Last week I wrote about high school start times, and suggested that a later start time would be beneficial to students who appear to be sleep-deprived zombies most of the day.

Readers agreed, for the most part, that it does not make sense to have students start so early just when their sleep cycles prevent them from going to sleep before 11 p.m. However, some blamed students’ reliance on caffeinated beverages, over-scheduling, mobile media, medications, poor diets, the breakdown of the traditional family unit, and on and on. Luckily one reader, Dr. Terra Snider, is an expert on this subject and agreed to share her expertise with Patch readers.

Q: Dr. Snider, what prompted you to become an advocate for the movement to have high schools start later?

A: As both a mother of three and a medical writer, I’ve lived and breathed this issue for years. However, after working futilely to change the 7:17 a.m. high school start times in my local system, I basically gave up. I realized that even when schools want to change, politics, money, and myth often trump the kids’ best interests.

The chance to create an online petition last fall changed everything. It seemed like a unique opportunity to put this “sleeper” of an issue on the national radar screen. To my surprise, that simple act sparked a national coalition (Start School Later) of formerly isolated groups all facing similar challenges.

Q: What is the usual response when you tell (people, friends, patients) about your dedication to this cause?

A: Passion! Often that passion is positive, especially among health professionals, sleep experts, and educators familiar with the literature, and among many parents and teens grateful that someone is finally trying to do something. However, many other people think the whole thing is a joke at best, and the “the end of civilization” at worst.

To be fair, changing school hours is a big deal affecting an entire community. So I understand these reactions in people who aren’t familiar with the voluminous research showing how dangerous and counterproductive it is to start schools at 7 a.m.

Q: If school started later, wouldn’t kids just see that as an opportunity to stay up later?

A: What’s fascinating is that in schools that have managed to start later, kids end up getting significantly more sleep each night. Shifted body clocks in most teens make it impossible to fall asleep before 11 p.m. no matter how hard they try. Many teens already stay up so late it’s hard to stay up any later, and getting more sleep per night probably makes them more efficient.

Q: We are only talking moving start times up about a half hour to an hour at most. Is this enough time to make a difference?

A: Every bit of extra sleep helps! Besides, that argument is a double-edged sword; if getting 15 extra minutes of sleep doesn’t matter, then either does losing 15. That’s how schools slowly moved up start times over the years. And remember: the petition sets 8 a.m. as a barebones minimum, but schools could, and should, still start later. The idea is to draw the line to make it easier for schools to prioritize health and learning when local schools set schedules.

Q: What do you say to those people who say we are just coddling our teens?

A: Is it coddling teens to insist they wear seatbelts or avoid second-hand smoke? Early school start time is a public health and safety issue in the same way. Drawing the line at 8 a.m. is a form of child protection to prevent abuse.

Q: One of the biggest reasons people oppose this change is the impact it would have on extracurricular activities. What do you say to those who those who believe this would just push all their activities back, forcing kids to just stay up later to get it all done?

A: People say this no matter what time a school starts. Yet whether schools start at 7 a.m. or 9 a.m., they manage to have extracurriculars (including world-class athletics). There’s nothing inherently sacred in a given start time.

Just because something’s done a certain way now doesn’t mean that’s the only, or the best, way to do it. Communities revolve around school hours, not vice versa. If school hours change, everything else adjusts accordingly.

To sign the petition Dr. Snider mentioned, go to www.startschoollater.net. As indicated  on the website, individual schools or districts in 19 states have pushed back their start times. Their stories are also available on the website.

Sue Schaefer is a student advocate, academic coach, and certified teacher. We encourage you to visit her website: Academic Coaching Associates. You may email Sue at susan.schaefer@academiccoachingct.com.

You can also follow Sue on twitter: @sueschaefer1

According to the Sleep Doctors website, Terra Ziporyn Snider, Ph.D. is the creator of a national petition for a minimum school start time, as well as one of the co-founders of Start School Later, a national coalition of health professionals, sleep scientists, educators, parents, and other concerned citizens who want to ensure school start times compatible with health, safety, and learning for all. She is the an award-winning author of numerous popular health and medical books including THE NEW HARVARD GUIDE TO WOMEN’S HEALTH, THE WOMEN’S CONCISE GUIDE TO EMOTIONAL WELL-BEING, ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE FOR DUMMIES, and NAMELESS DISEASES. After graduating from Yale, she was a Searle Fellow at the University of Chicago, where she earned a doctorate in the history of science and medicine while conducting research in biopsychology. A former associate editor at The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Terra has also written extensively on a wide range of health and medical issues in both professional and popular publications, including The Harvard Health Letter, JAMA, Consumer Reports, Weight Watchers Magazine, Business Week, and Longevity and has been awarded science-writing fellowships by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society, and the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole. She lives near Annapolis, MD with her political scientist husband, J.H. Snider, and is the mother of three.

Heather Macintosh February 04, 2012 at 08:57 PM
I love this interview and the way it helps to show the flip side of some of the most common objections to changing high school start times. Remember the introduction of seat belt laws? That's an excellent example of a change that provoked a lot of knee-jerk resistance, yet I don't think many would argue now that we should have just stuck with the status quo. When it comes to schools and kids, the question should always be asked: is this best for the kids and their education?
Maribel Ibrahim February 05, 2012 at 12:24 AM
Susan, thank you so much for this article. I am the mother of three young children and I originally thought this issue was a matter of teenagers not managing their sleep schedules effectively. However, when Dr. Snider explained to me that teens have trouble falling asleep before 10pm, that made me pay attention. I have seen it with my own nephew, who always adhered to a strict night-time routine and was in bed by 9pm. When he turned 16, he just naturally became a night owl. My nephew plays multiple sports and is a star athlete. He is not lazy, nor is he just up texting his friends. But he does stay up later, which I now understand is part of the natural rhythm of teens. I also see the high schoolers at the bus stop in front of my house every weekday morning. The street is dark and busy, and I think it is inhumane to send our children out there before the garbage men even make their runs. Yes, there is the cost of bus runs. But there is also the cost of the health and safety of our children. Depression and suicide attempts are becoming far too rampant. This issue cannot be ignored anymore. This is why I partnered with Dr. Snider to create www.StartSchoolLater.net I invite your readers to visit the website, get informed and sign our petition. We also have a page dedicated to common misconceptions about school start times here: http://www.startschoollater.net/myths-and-misconceptions.html Maribel Ibrahim Co-Founder, www.StartSchoolLater.net
northrop w. taylor February 05, 2012 at 05:02 PM
Motivated teens get up at any hour they want to. Look at the members of girls' and boys' hockey teams who WILLINGLY get up at 4:30 a.m. (or earlier) to get to practice where rinks are booked 24/7. Same with swimmers on some teams that don't have their own pool. Should we start a nationwide petition to ban hockey, swimming, and other activities unless they start after 8 a.m.? How about generations of kids who worked tobacco in the summer for many years? The bus picked you up by 6:30 a.m. every day. People were motivated to go because it was a way to make some money, and it was a good social experience.This site ran a very good series on teenage tobacco workers from a generation ago last summer. Though the work was tough and hot, all had fond memories of the experience. I bet if you polled all of us tobacco workers back in 1966 and asked if we'd rather be sleeping, the overwhelming majority would have agreed, but we're glad we had the experience and we grew to appreciate the discipline of it over time. What's next? A petition to ban homework if you have to stay up past 10 o'clock? Personally, I'm tired of hearing about all of the "problems" facing today's youth. Youth in the 20th century had to deal with much more difficult problems than a school day starting at 7:30: 2 world wars and a depression that makes this "great recession" seem like a bump in the road. They survived and thrived somehow.
George February 06, 2012 at 02:30 PM
"Motivated teens" can do a lot of things, Northrop. That doesn't mean they should.
Philip Co March 03, 2012 at 03:55 PM
My wife and I are very strict about bedtimes for our high school senior and eight grader. Lights out and electronics off at 8:30 pm. Yeah, it's hard for even me to believe that they always go to sleep at that time, but sometimes they actually do. It scares me to think how sleep deprived and exhausted our older child will be when he attends college next year. But at least we helped him get accepted into a good school.


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