Cursed were the days that I had to wake up at the crack of dawn to get ready for school, which persisted for 13 years. Ok, it wasn’t so bad when I was a kid because I was tired by 9 or 10 p.m. and went to bed without any objections. But as I got older and moved into adolescence, I just wasn’t ready to go to sleep that early—which made waking up by 6:30 a.m., getting to school by 8 a.m., and functioning the entire day pretty difficult. It’s safe to say I was a zombie for much of my high school career (especially during soccer season)—but I persisted and I made it out alive.
In all seriousness, waking up for school that early was challenging. I often struggled to stay awake in class, let alone pay attention; I experienced moodiness and irritability; I started to fight with my boyfriend and my friends for no good reason; I just didn’t feel like myself. But I never understood these as consequences for waking up so early and starting school so early—until now. A new study “A process-oriented model linking adolescents’ sleep hygiene and psychological functioning: the moderating role of school start times”, conducted by Rochester University researchers and published in Sleep Health, furthers evidence that school start times can significantly affect adolescent mental health. More specifically, it found that teens who start school before 8:30 a.m. are at a heightened risk of experiencing anxiety and depression due to poor sleep quality.
While this research emerges alongside other related studies, this one “is the first to really look at how school start times affect sleep quality, even when a teen is doing everything else right to get a good night’s sleep,” explains lead author of the study and URMC clinical assistant professor in Psychiatry Jack Peltz, Ph.D. “While there are other variables that need to be explored, our findings show that earlier school start times seem to put more pressure on the sleep process and increase mental health symptoms, while later school start times appear to be a strong protective factor for teens.”
In order to study the effects school start times have on sleep quality, Peltz’ research team used an online tool to gather data (thanks to a grant from the National Sleep Foundation) from 197 students all around the country, ranging between the ages of 14 and 17. These students and their parents answered questions about the child’s sleep habits, the family’s socioeconomic status, and their school start times. The participants were then separated into two groups based on whether they started school before or after 8:30 a.m.—the American Academy of Pediatricians’ recommended high school start time—and tasked with keeping a sleep diary for a week to keep track of their daily sleep habits, sleep quality and duration, as well as depressive and anxiety symptoms.
The research team found that all of the students who upheld good sleep habits had lower average daily depressive/anxiety symptoms, especially those who started school after 8:30; but students who upheld good sleep habits and started school earlier had higher average daily depressive and anxiety symptoms. “Our results suggest that good sleep hygiene practices are advantageous to students no matter when they go to school,” explains Peltz. “However, the fact that school start times showed a moderating effect on mental health symptoms suggests that better sleep hygiene combined with later school start times would yield better outcomes.”
When I was in high school, winter was my favorite holiday because the slightest snow in Virginia at least equaled a two-hour delay. That’s all I needed: just an extra hour or two before the start of school. But while this study does suggest that later school start times are essential to students’ mental wellness, it also shows that one’s sleep habits are a big factor as well—I should have turned my TV off earlier, stuck to a healthy sleep schedule, and ultimately ensured I got the recommended 8-10 hours of sleep each night. My proactive action combined with a later school start time would have resulted in a much happier, healthier me.
Source: University of Rochester Medical Center “Earlier School Start Time May Increase Depression and Anxiety Risk.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 3 October 2017. <http://neurosciencenews.com/anxiety-depression-school-time-7644/>.
Original Research: Abstract for “A process-oriented model linking adolescents’ sleep hygiene and psychological functioning: the moderating role of school start times” by Jack S. Peltz, Ronald D. Rogge, Heidi Connolly, and Thomas G. O’Connor in Sleep Health. Published online September 22 2017 doi:10.1016/j.sleh.2017.08.003