School Start Times: We're Failing Our Kids

Although I'm not a sleep scientist - heck, I don't even play one on TV - I do spend an obscene amount of time talking to sleep researchers and specialists; and one of the things I keep hearing from that community is that there seems to be a level of frustration with communicating the results of scientific research to the general public. There's almost this thing of people's eyes glazing over, like the tryptophan from every thanksgiving dinner they've ever had in their whole life is kicking in right now, or the same look that most husbands get about 76 seconds into your average rom-com. (You know the face.)

We've seen it through the COVID-19 pandemic and the pandemic itself has led to a pet irritant of mine that has nothing to do with covid at all. As I put this week's episode together, we were hearing a lot about getting kids back to school and getting kids back to school safely. And the gulf of difference between what the scientists want, what the parents want, what the teachers want and what's actually best for the kids is kind of like a meeting of the United Nations where everybody forgot to bring their translators. Everybody's talking, nobody's actually listening, but the part of the conversation that's interesting to me is that there are all these groups that for whatever reason suddenly have taken an interest in what's best for the kids.

People in the sleep world know exactly where I'm going with this conversation but do me a favor and don't get too far ahead of me. If you're not a scientist walk with me for a second through a little bit of a thought experiment - and that is a very critical phrase, a 'thought experiment'.

What if I told you hypothetically that there are countless studies that prove - not just suggest, but prove - that waiting for another month to send your kids back to school would result in a 16 drop in teenage car crashes?

That waiting a month would all but guarantee them a higher gpa?

What if i told you that sending them back now would increase their chances of suffering a sports injury would increase their risk of depression and suicide and increase their chances of participating in behaviors like smoking and drinking and drug use?

Well pretty much every parent on the planet - at least the ones that I know - would be screaming from the rooftops that, "Oh we gotta delay school by a month if not longer it's their safety for goodness sake we gotta do something!"

Except that there ARE countless studies like that.

Not about sending them back though; in fact, it's nothing connected to COVID whatsoever.

Do you want your kids to do better in school? You want to get better grades? You want them to actually show up to class? You want them to be 16 percent less likely to get in a car wreck? You want them to reduce their risk of getting hurt playing sports? Lower their risk of tobacco, alcohol, drugs? You want to lower their risk of suicide?

Let them sleep an hour longer.

No, that's it. That's the whole fix.

And by the way, it's not because teenagers are lazy and it's not because they're addicted to TikTok, it's not because they have too much homework (well okay maybe they do have a little bit too much homework teachers come on they only have so much time once they get home).

It's because of science.

It's because of the way that your hormones work when you were a teenager and it begs for a schedule that is in alignment because you have no control over it. You remember being a teenager, right? You remember hormones? Yeah, don't worry, I'm not going to take you there because I'm in no position to... uh... if I took my teenage years and put that in a Brat Pack movie I'd make Anthony Michael Hall look like James Dean. I was awkward. Like, "first time you walked in on your parents" awkward. But getting back to the sleep thing...

For most teenagers, having them wake up at for school at six or seven that would be like having YOU wake up at three or four. Trust me, I woke up at three or four for 30 years and it is so much less glamorous than it seems. I spent three decades willing to hack off a limb with a spork for an extra hour.

For a teenager, hormones dictate that optimal bedtime is somewhere around 11. Optimal wake-up time, somewhere around eight - maybe even later - and that's "wake up" time, not "be at school ready to go" time.

Let's be clear: You make them wake up earlier than that, the science says they're more likely to get in a car wreck. The science says they're more likely to get hurt on the playing field, more likely to smoke, drink, do drugs, more likely to see a hit in their grades, and they're more likely to suffer from depression, and more likely to think about suicide.

That's not hyperbole... that's science.

The links to the relevant information are below, but... if you're a school administrator or a parent with teenagers in school here's my question:

How many more seconds of this do you need to listen to, before you get angry enough to demand that someone makes a change because they've made choices that are making your kids more likely to think about suicide?

KNOPP Studios

Neil Hedley

Neil Hedley spent three decades helping people wake up as a morning radio host. Now, he's trying to help them sleep, after battling insomnia since the age of six. Neil is also a bestselling author, television personality, and runs a podcast production facility and advertising & content creation company on Vancouver Island.