Call It Sleep, Sort Of

By Scott Turner / January / February 1999
November 21st, 2007
If professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior Mary Carskadon has her way, students in middle and high schools around the country may one day be studying their own sleep habits in biology class. Writing in the January issue of Phi Delta Kappan magazine, Carskadon, a well-known sleep researcher, argues that the topic could intro-duce teenagers to a number of genetic and brain-related concepts while helping them understand the changes taking place in their own bodies.

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.

What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
January / February 1999