Sleep is crucial across the board — yet many of us still don’t get enough. The problem is perhaps most starkly noticeable when it comes to teens: Three quarters of high school students don’t get the recommended eight hours per night. Science has long suggested that teenagers’ changing circadian rhythms means they need to sleep later into the morning than children or even adults, which makes our schooling system — most schools start before 8:30 a.m. — very dissonant. A smarter, later schedule would keep our teens happier, healthier, and ultimately more successful.

An Opinion piece in the New York Times, written by journalist and high school science teacher Henry Nicholls, highlights these facts, presenting some of the crucial research that advocates later school start times as well as other factors that contribute to inadequate sleep amongst teens.

These are some of the key things we learned from his coverage:

It’s not just school start times — screen time is a big part of the problem, too.

Part of what is eating into teens’ sleep time is the six-plus hours they spend on their screens each day, most of it after school and into the night. And it’s not just the (very real) temptation of socializing and playing video games that’s the problem — the blue light of screens actually convinces our brains that it’s still daytime, compounding the effects of teens’ nightbird tendencies and leaving them even less present come morning.

Opening schools later has the potential to curb obesity and car crashes.

The effects of fatigue are wide ranging, comprising more than the expected latenesses and lack of attention during class: There are also health issues like obesity and hypertension, increased risk of mental illness, and car crashes due to exhausted drivers. Nicholls argues that opening schools later (as well as stricter parental screen time rules) has the potential to mitigate these endemic problems — there have already been increases in attendance, grade improvement, and car crash reductions at schools that have instituted later start times.

Later start times could actually improve the economy and students’ future financial success.

By improving educational outcomes and minimizing car crashes, later start times could have an $83 billion impact on the economy, according to the RAND corporation. They could also have long-term effects on students’ success, improving lifetime earnings by $17,500, according to the Brookings Institute. There are hard numbers attached to the change. That should be enough to convince skeptics: sleep is crucial to our teens, and should be a national priority. 

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  • Nora Battelle

    Multimedia Staff Writer at Thrive

    Nora Battelle is a writer from New York City. Her work has been published on the Awl, the Hairpin, and the LARB blog, and she's written for podcast and film. At Swarthmore College, she studied English and French literature and graduated with Highest Honors. She's fascinated by language, culture, the internet, and all the small choices that can help us thrive.