In a Nov. 14 Maine Compass (“Start school later? Teenagers have things to do before they sleep”), Mary Capobianco of Scarborough shared her skepticism about the Start School Later initiative, which would allow later start times for teenagers in public school. While I respect Capobianco’s position as an educator and parent of multiple teenagers, I believe she is wrong.

In an attempt to convince the public that later start times are a bad idea, Capobianco made a sweeping generalization that “our teenagers will now be up an extra hour unattended.”

She further predicts that they’ll be texting, using Facebook and watching Jimmy Fallon late at night. She says our teens are out to “outsmart” us when it comes to bedtimes, and argues against the unfairness of it by saying that all parents could use “an extra hour of sleep.”

While they may sound convincing to most harried parents of teenagers, Capobianco’s arguments against later sleep times are based not on research, but on her personal experiences with students and her own children. While compelling, her arguments contain no actual evidence from scientific studies.

Although parents might be convinced that starting school later will simply provide teenagers with extra, unstructured time on their own the night before, research clearly states that later start times are an appropriate, reasonable response to biological and physiological changes in teenage brains.

The National Sleep Foundation cites many studies on the subject. The foundation has found that, as children become teenagers, their brains continue to change and develop — and so do their sleep patterns.

The foundation cites research that concludes that teens “undergo a sleep phase delay,” which translates into their needing later bedtimes — and later wake-up calls as well. “Research shows the typical adolescent’s natural time to fall asleep may be 11 p.m. or later; because of this change in their internal clocks, teens may feel wide awake at bedtime, even when they are exhausted,” according to the foundation.

So what does this mean? It means that your child isn’t staying up until 11 p.m. simply because he or she wants to Snapchat, cruise Facebook or watch Stephen Colbert. In reality, studies have shown that teenage brains are changing to the point that they become more alert as the day progresses, with even greater alertness at 10 p.m. than observed at 7 p.m.

The data are not based simply on anecdotes in which causation has been confused with correlation. A plethora of evidence in study after study (much of which can be found at the National Sleep Foundation website and via any quick Google search) shows that teenage brains change to the point where teens truly cannot go to sleep as early as they did when they were children, and that forcing teens to wake even earlier still is unwise from a health standpoint.

It’s ill-advised from an educational and safety standpoint as well. All arguments over iPhones and TV aside, who among us really wants to see a sleep-deprived teenager with already-questionable decision-making ability (because of a still-developing prefrontal cortex) driving a car at 30 mph through town — or, worse yet, at 70 mph on the highway?

Also, can we really expect said teens to learn in school during a time of day when their brains are, because of physiological development, even sleepier than they are at nighttime?

Perhaps rather than arguing, complaining about screen time and warning teens that they need to turn in for the night, we parents should make, and enforce, better sleep hygiene rules, including no televisions or technology devices (“screens”) in children’s bedrooms.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, screens should be turned off about an hour before bedtime because those screens emit blue light that mimics sunlight and can affect the production of melatonin, which regulates our sleep cycle.

In other words, screens wake us up, which is the last thing we need when we’re trying to go to sleep.

I have a teenager at home and have taught middle school science for many years. Every year, I talk with my 90-plus kids about the importance of getting enough sleep. I also teach them to “ask for the evidence.”

We can’t just go with what we think is right for our kids, based on our own beliefs. We need to do what we know is right for our kids, based on evidence and on research.

Karina Chapman of Kennebunkport is a middle school science teacher and parent of a teenager.


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