Could an extra hour’s sleep get teenagers better grades?

Zzz_sleep.svgIt is a well-known fact that teenagers like a lie-in. After years of early mornings, parents struggle to get their adolescents out of bed and into school. But, could it be because they need that lie-in? It’s been long-suggested that a later start could boost results, and now scientists in Oxford are launching a study of 32,000 pupils to try and determine the truth.

Professor Colin Espie suggests that whilst it is often thought teenagers are simply lazy, or should go to bed earlier, “there are developmental changes during the teenage years, which lead to them actually not being as tired as we think they ought to be at normal bedtime and still sleepy in the morning.” So, normal school start times simply aren’t in sync with their biorhythms. However, Paul Gringas, a consultant at Guy’s and St Thomas Hospital, suggests that teenager’s sleep problems are a result of social change. An example given is in teenager’s frequent use of social technology and other muti-media, of mobile phones and computers; artificial light stops our bodies winding down for the night. Frequent, everyday use of games consoles and mobile phones prevents the production of melatonin, which enables you to fall asleep. The consequences are obvious and inevitable.

What everyone agrees is that teenagers aren’t getting enough sleep: recent studies suggest that whilst they need an average 9.5 hours a night, most teenagers fall short of this by two hours, sleeping only 7.5 hours a night. But does that sleep need to be on a different schedule to the rest of the working world? Or do they just need to go to bed earlier?

Researchers have suggested that we all avoid exposure to blue light- from computers, smart phones and tablets- for an hour or two before bed to improve sleep patterns. So perhaps all teenagers need is an earlier bedtime and a limit on evening technology. Try keeping an adult from technological devices for that long, though, never mind a tech-savvy, trend-conscious teenager. More realistically, dimming screens, keeping them at a 12 inch distance from your eyes, and wearing amber tinted glasses all reduce your exposure to blue light.

It may be that parents and carers need to enforce some bedtime rules and routines to ensure that their teenagers get enough sleep, Perhaps teenagers need to cut out the technology before bedtime and keep the same hours as the adult population. After all, they’ll have to fit into those routines in the working world. Then again, that could also be an unrealistic expectation, if we believe that, as Espie suggests, teenagers simply run to a different schedule.

It seems our teenagers are overtired, and tiredness certainly affects their learning. Small trials certainly have suggested later starts have had a positive impact on performance, but a trial has never been performed on quite such a scale before. The evidence so far suggests that an extra hour in bed certainly improves results: but, does it have to be in the morning?

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