Sunday, September 17, 2006


by Stephen Moore, from the Wall Street Journal, September 1, 2006

As a father of two teenage boys, I can attest to the fact that the single greatest teen crisis in America is not drugs, alcohol, smoking or early sexual activity, but sleep deprivation. Tuesday marks the start of the school year in our district in Fairfax, Va., and for the better part of the next nine months my kids will shuffle through the day resembling the zombies from "Night of the Living Dead." The reason that so many kids today appear to be slouching toward Gomorrah is simply that they lack sleep.

Waking teens from their deep REM sleep before 7 a.m. -- which during late fall and winter is well before the rooster crows -- is much like approaching a lion gnawing on an antelope carcass. All the niceties that we've tried to instill in our children for the past 15 years about honoring thy mother and father go flying out the window in these wee hours of the morning. Breakfasts from now until June will be as somber as the death row inmate's last meal. We shovel frosted flakes down their throats so that the temporary sugar fix arouses them out of their comatose state long enough to get them out the front door.

When I queried my kids and their friends recently about how they survive on seven hours of sleep a day, they confess that the strategy is to catch up on a few z's during first and second periods at school. That would be fine if the first subjects were classes like social studies, which indoctrinate them with anti-American ideals anyway. But get this: The educrats who run the Fairfax County schools front-load the vital subjects like math and English at the start of the day because they actually believe "that's when the kids are most alert."

It's astonishing that a community like Fairfax, which prides itself on the quality of its public schools, retains a 7:20 a.m. start time despite the detriment to the health and scholastic achievement of our kids. Parents with teens are in open revolt to the idiocy of the policy and have even started a Web site,, to fix it.

The school board insists that an 8:30 a.m. start time would cost the county some $40 million a year, because of unalterable bus schedules. Incredible. The legislators in our state just passed a $2 billion tax increase, the largest ever, to fund the latest education fads, like higher teacher pay and smaller class sizes -- which studies all show will have almost no effect -- but they can't afford a policy at a fraction of the cost that will do far more to benefit kids in terms of improved behavior, attendance, mood, health and test scores.

This controversy over early school start times is raging in hundreds of communities today, pitting parents against unbending school bureaucracies. Surveys of teen's parents in school districts with early start times find that as many as 90% favor a later starting bell. If ever there were a case study in how public school boards ignore the wishes of their "customers," it is this.

Meanwhile, research overwhelmingly confirms that lack of sleep in adolescents has become a horrendous health problem in America. The National Sleep Foundation finds that teens now average between 6.5 and seven hours of uninterrupted sleep on a weeknight and only one in five gets the recommended nine hours. Of course computer games, chat rooms, sports schedules and the like have a lot to do with the late nights.

But so do their biological clocks. Studies show that spurting growth hormones in teens alter their circadian rhythm and naturally turn them into night owls, physiologically uninterested in 9:30 p.m. bedtimes and fiercely opposed to 6:15 a.m. wake-up calls. (This fact suggests that I myself am still in late puberty.)

So here is the inevitable ritual: Kids trudge through the week on insufficient sleep, barely limp to the finish line on Fridays, use the weekends to pay off the week's sleep debt by snoozing until noon and then try to readjust their body clocks on Monday morning. Prof. Jim Moss, a sleep expert at Cornell, says: "It's as if at the start of every week our kids have West Coast to East Coast jet lag." He finds that in the early morning classroom "the overwhelming drive to sleep can replace any chance of alertness, cognition, memory or understanding."

And we also know that later school start times can reduce this affliction. Amy Wolfson, a professor at Holy Cross who studies Americans' sleep patterns, tells me: "The evidence is pretty clear that students in the later-starting schools get more sleep and have less tardiness, fewer behavior problems, and do somewhat better in school."

We're a society fixated on public policies that are "for the children," yet we tolerate school schedules that harm students and, worse yet, make what should be the best years of their lives needlessly miserable. Communities spend billions of dollars a year -- with so-so success in fighting teen drug use -- but sleep deprivation has all of the same disabling symptoms while being far more widespread. Perhaps it's time for a new campaign: This is your teenager's brain; this is your teen's brain (a fried egg) on six hours' sleep.

SLEEP Research - Links to Web Pages with Information About Adolescents and Sleep

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