Teens need at least eight hours of sleep per night, yet 2 out of 3 high school students usually sleep less than eight hours on school nights. Adolescents who do not get enough sleep are more likely to be overweight, suffer from symptoms of depression, perform poorly in school and engage in unhealthy risk behaviors such as drinking, smoking tobacco and using illicit drugs.

A review of the findings

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed data collected by the U.S. Department of Education from schools nationwide for the 2011-2012 school year that was representative of nearly 40,000 middle, high and combined schools with over 26 million students. The results published in a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report include:

  • Fewer than 1 in 5 middle and high schools in the U.S. began the day at the recommended 8:30 AM start time.

  • The average start time was 8:03 AM

  • Across 42 states, most (75-100 percent) public schools started before 8:30 AM

The report also found that start times varied greatly. For example,

  • No schools in Hawaii, Mississippi and Wyoming started after 8:30 AM.Most schools in North Dakota (78 percent) and Alaska (76 percent) started after 8:30 AM.

  • Louisiana had the earliest average school start time (7:40 AM) and Alaska had the latest average school start time (8:33 AM).

Non-sleep factors

During puberty, biological rhythms commonly shift so that adolescents become sleepy later at night and need to sleep later in the morning. Coupled with irregular bedtimes and the presence of television, computers and mobile phones in bedrooms, it may be harder to get good quality sleep.

"Adolescents who do not get enough sleep are more likely to be overweight, suffer from symptoms of depression, perform poorly in school and engage in unhealthy risk behaviors"

School start times are regulated at the district or individual school level, allowing communities the opportunity to influence change. However, various factors may pose a challenge in moving to later school start times. Examples include concerns about increased transportation costs due to changes in bus schedules, potential traffic congestion for students and faculty, difficulty scheduling after-school activities such as athletic programs and a lack of education in some communities about the importance of sleep and school start times.

Despite these perceived obstacles, schools in 43 states have been able to make significant strides to later school start times, demonstrating success is possible when stakeholders take action.

What can be done?

The current recommendation issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2014 urges middle and high schools to modify school start times so that students are able to get enough sleep, which is important for achieving the best possible health. Yet, the answer to this public health problem requires a collective approach that includes identifying how the decision to delay school start times will impact students, school staff, after-school programming and transportation and identifying solutions to potential problems.

In the short term there are actions that key groups can take:

What parents can do:

  • Inform them about the impact of too little sleep on their adolescent’s health and academic performance.

  • Approach school officials about changing school start times and be aware of some commonly mentioned barriers such as transportation costs and scheduling difficulties.

  • Set a regular bedtime and rise time, including on weekends, which is recommended for children and adults. They can also put a media-curfew in place where the household turns off computers, mobile phones and television sets in preparation for bedtime.

What others can do:

  • School officials can learn more about the research connecting sleep and school start times.

  • Health care professionals treating adolescents can educate patients and parents about the importance of adequate sleep and the factors that contribute to insufficient sleep.