Tuesday, March 10, 2009

LPoD - teenagers and their sleep patterns

Fascinating! I just happened to be driving back from Oxford today in time to hear a radio interview with a Dr Paul Kelly regarding recent research into teenage sleep patterns. Kelly referenced this programme on the BBC, in which he appears (hopefully this will be available to non-UK residents - please let me know if this is not the case).

The research question was something along the lines of: are teenagers just lazy or is there a physiological explanation for their tendency to sleep until 11am?

It seems that, from the onset of puberty until the age of 21 in boys (19.5 in girls) there is a genuine physiological shift in their body clocks which results in a change in the pattern of the release of melanin into their bodies. At around 10am, the hormonal shift from sleep to wakefulness starts to kick in.

Kelly was talking about a school which plans to shift its school day to run from 11am-5pm instead of 9am-3pm.

Of course, there was an instant outcry from the listening public who opposed the idea. With the show being aired during working hours, you can imagine that the bulk of the listening demographic comprises pensioners, most of whom were thoroughly indignant, it seems. There was a lot of "When I were a lad" and "Never did me no 'arm". Teenagers were roundly criticised for being lazy and out of touch with the real world. Only one woman - the mother of 3 teenagers - dared support the idea.

If there is to be resistance to the concept, I would prefer to see it based on sound reasoning, rather than "that's 'ow it's allus bin done". One opponent did cite the logistical issues around teachers' working hours and child care issues, which would obviously have to be considered.

As the mother of two teenagers, and, as an erstwhile teenager myself, I would have to say that my observations are as follows:

  • My husband and I have always been night owls, preferring to stay up late and sleep in, whenever possible. We're not teenagers any more (you'll be astonished to learn), so are we anomalous? On the other hand, we are able to rise at a 'respectable' hour and function normally, whereas it seems that teenagers demonstrate a quantifiable improvement in cognitive ability later in the day.
  • Our elder son has also always been something of a night owl. Since he turned 16, he no longer has a bedtime. However, we do find it necessary to stick our heads around the door and say, "Erm, Sweetheart, it's almost midnight and you have a first session tomorrow. I suggest you get your tail into bed."
  • Our younger son was the solitary lark in the family. While the rest of the family was deep in blissful slumber, he was ready to start the day with a smile and a twinkle. I have a niggling worry that our grunted "Unh-unh!" at him every morning has done damage to his psyche, since he lacks the easy self-assurance of his brother. Be that as it may, with the onset of puberty, even our lark has taken to lie-ins whenever possible.
On one side are those who argue that we need to establish good time-keeping habits rather than indulging our teenagers, because they won't be indulged once they begin working. On the other side is the idea that they might perform better if the school day were timed to fit their body clocks.

As the interview progressed, I could picture in my occasionally photographic mind just about every exam timetable my kids have ever had. Almost without exception, the start time for their exams has been 9am. So not only do we have a ludicrous system for assessing a child's competence in any given subject, the mechanism is scheduled to take place at the worst possible time for our teens. Hmm.

From my own perspective, I have no problem with moving the teenager's day forward by two hours. Of course, I'm not a teacher, whose life would be disrupted by this change.


V Yonkers said...

This has been a debate in the US for the last decade. When we changed our school system in our district from elementary, middle, jr. high, sr. high to elementary, middle/jr. high, sr. high, we asked that the school district change the hours so the youngest children started first, then the middle school, then the high school.

Of course they ignored our pleas and kept it the way it was: High school starts at 7:20, middle school at 8:00 and elementary at 9:00. Since we have such a large district area wise, my son would leave at 8:20 and come home at 4:30 when he was 5.

The reason that was given in the US, however, was that allowing students to get out of high school at 2:15 (school is from 7:25-2:15) means they can get jobs after school and still study in the evenings. Also, the sports schedule allows them to go distance they need to get to games after school. As many drive by the time they are 17, many the last two years of school drive themselves to work or school.

I wouldn't call them lazy, but I wonder what happens if teens are not forced into the habit of getting up in the morning. Would they sleep even later and eventually be the perfect night shift worker?

Karyn Romeis said...

Well, I have to say that I reckon a 7:25 start is far worse for teachers than an 11am start. How do they organise their own child care needs? How do they get their younger kids to school when their school only starts after Mom/Dad has to be at work?

Seems silly to me.