Good Parenting or Good Policy? Both Are Needed to Curb the Epidemic of Teen Sleep Loss


Jan 27, 2018

High school student asleep in the classroom

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This commentary originally appeared on USA Today on January 26, 2018.

As school districts across America plan their calendars for the next school year, many have been grappling with the critical question of what time the morning school bell should ring.

Despite considerable scientific evidence demonstrating that later school start times are associated with more sleep among adolescents, as well as improvements in well-being, public safety, and academic performance, resistance to changing start times remains high. One of the most oft-repeated arguments against later start times goes something like this: “It's not about school start times. It's about bad parenting!”

As a parent of a teenager myself, and as a sleep scientist, I absolutely agree that good parenting is critical for healthy sleep. But when it comes to curbing the epidemic of teen sleep loss, good parenting can do only so much.

Why does it have to be good parenting or good policy? The truth is, both are needed.

On the parenting side, getting kids to bed at a reasonable time is obviously a critical step. But so is limiting the use of technology. In my house, bedrooms are technology-free zones. Social media, gaming, and texting are far too stimulating before bedtime and should be shut down at least an hour before sleep.

A first step for parents is to model good sleep hygiene behaviors themselves. Parents who use technology in the bedroom are more likely to have kids who use technology in their bedrooms. Parents can also lead by example in setting a relaxing wind-down routine before bedtime, like reading a book or spending some time together as a family. How can we expect to fall into deep, restful slumber when we rush into bed and rarely give our bodies and our brains even a small window of opportunity to disconnect and unwind?

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The policy part of this equation revolves around school start times. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and other major medical organizations recommend that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. Earlier start times risk depriving students of the sleep their adolescent bodies and minds demand.

If, for example, a high school starts at 7:35 a.m., and a teen needs to be on the bus by 6:45 a.m. and awake by 6 a.m. to get ready, that means she needs to be asleep (not just in bed) by 10 p.m., just to get the minimum recommended hours of sleep for this age group (8 to 10 hours). As any parent of a teenager can tell you, and certainly any sleep scientist can confirm, getting a teenager asleep by 10 p.m. is a formidable task. It's not just a matter of willpower or discipline—it's about their biology.

During adolescence, the release of the hormone melatonin, which signals sleep onset (PDF), is shifted about two hours later than what we see in adults or younger children, effectively causing a biological predisposition towards later bedtimes and later wake-up times during the adolescent years. That's why the AAP and other medical groups focused their start time recommendation on middle and high schools. It's also why good parenting, without good policy, may not be enough.

There is one evidence-based policy with proven results that has been shown to increase adolescents' sleep duration: later school start times. School districts, communities, and parents should be considering multi-pronged strategies that start with a later school bell. Other steps could include sleep education in schools (which is rarely, if ever, included in health education), in order to have a demonstrable impact on improving adolescent sleep.

This type of reductionist view, that it is “all about parenting,” is no doubt one of the reasons that over 80 percent of public middle and high schools in the United States have so far failed to heed the scientific evidence that later school start times promote better sleep for teens and the wide range of benefits that come with it. Mitigating the consequences of adolescent sleep loss, through a combination of good parenting and smart policy, should be the goal.

Wendy M. Troxel is a senior behavioral and social scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.