Carskadon's article grew out of the enthusiastic response to a talk she gave during Parents Weekend in October. Describing the conflict teenagers face between their own biological needs and the demands society places on them, Carskadon outlined her research showing that the internal clock of children slows as they enter adolescence. One result is that many teens go to bed and wake up later than the rest of the family.
The problem is that although the bodies of adolescents may be making them sleepy later at night, they still have to get up early to get to school. Because the internal-clock shift does not mean that adolescents require less sleep, Carskadon said, they can wind up sleep-deprived and exhibit such effects as memory lapses, attention deficit, depression, and slowed reaction time. Her research even notes poorer grades in students who get too little sleep.
School districts nationwide have taken particular interest in Carskadon's findings. Dozens, in fact, are considering ways to shift high school hours to better fit adolescent body clocks. In the suburbs of Minneapolis, her work has been cited as the basis for a later-start-time experiment that has already led administrators and teachers to notice a drop in rates of tardiness and absenteeism as well as an increase in alertness.
But, Carskadon said during her Parents Weekend talk, delaying school start times for teens will not by itself end the conflict between biological need and societal habit. Many teens, freed from the worry of having to get up as early, may stay up even later to work, study, surf the Net,or watch the tube. Thus the need for them to be aware of what their optimal sleeping habits might be, and why.