Should teens be allowed to start school later?

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Leading medical experts agree that teenagers shouldn't start school as early as they do, but a recent study found parents are divided on whether to support delays in school start times to support teen learning.

The research, performed by the University of Michigan, found about a 50-50 split among parents on whether they would like their teenager to sleep later on school days.

The results come from a survey of 554 parents whose children all start school before 8:30am. They shared their opinions on how much sleep their children need and whether they think later school start times are a good idea. The study was published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.

"We found that parents underestimated how much sleep their children needed, and only about half agreed with existing recommendations that school start times should be later," said lead researcher Galit Dunietz, a post-doctoral research fellow in neurology at Michigan Medicine.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends teens sleep eight to 10 hours every night. This takes into account their circadian rhythms, which often run longer than 24 hours, making it hard for them to get out of bed in the morning. Many parents in the study thought their teen could function properly on seven hours of sleep a night, or less.

"If their bodies don't tell them they're tired until 11pm or later and then they have to be at school before 7:30am, many of these teens experience a chronic sleep debt," said Dr Dunietz. This means children who sign up for extra-curricular activities in the mornings are at a distinct disadvantage.

"Many teens would do fine if they could go to bed late and sleep late in the morning," said senior study author and neurologist Ronald Chervin, director of the University of Michigan Sleep Disorders Center. "But they can be late to school or become chronically sleep-deprived when classes start early every weekday."

The effects of not enough sleep can obviously affect teens in the classroom, but they are more far-reaching than that. Dr Dunietz said it can also lead to mood disorders such as depression, obesity and risky behaviours – and once teens start driving, their inexperience combined with lack of sleep can make them dangerous on the roads.

There has been no indication a later start time is being considered in Australian schools, but with a slightly later start time than US schools, our teens start with a small advantage.

Dr Dunietz said a later start time – and, of course, a later finishing time – would do wonders for teens everywhere. "There's evidence that it's a win-win for everyone," she said. "We cannot change teens' biology to have them sleep earlier, so we should push the school start times back."