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Night owls face disadvantages in high school years

Filed in
  • School
  • sleep length
  • Pediatrics
  • Teens

By Patrick Murray  |  Nov 13, 2013
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Teen sleepy on school bus

Teenagers who stay up late during the school year are likely to have lower grades and more emotional problems than their morning lark counterparts, according to a study that looked at the long-term sleep habits of teens.

The study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health involved a large sample of teens from across the country. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley looked at the teens’ academic records and reported bedtimes throughout their middle and high school years.

About 30 percent of the teens had bedtimes later than 11:30 p.m. on school days and 1:30 a.m. in the summertime. This group was unable to meet their recommended 9 hours of sleep during the school year. As a result, these teens had lower GPA scores than their peers and more reported behavioral problems.

During the summertime, students with later bedtimes were able to get 9 hours of sleep. These later bedtimes did not appear to affect their academic performance, though researchers noticed a link between later summer bedtimes and emotional problems in young adulthood.

Teenagers have a natural circadian tendency towards becoming night owls once they hit adolescence. Many have difficulty falling asleep early enough to get the full nine hours of sleep that they need to feel fully rested.

Extracurricular activities and schoolwork combined with teens’ desires to have extra free time at the end of the day may also keep teens from getting to bed on time. Evening use of electronics, such as smartphones, computers and videogames are also a factor.

It doesn’t help that in many school districts, classes start as early as 7:30 a.m. Some students who participate in athletics may be required to wake up much earlier to report to morning practice.

There’s a rising movement to push forward the start times to better accommodate teenagers’ sleep needs. Many parents across the country, along with advocacy groups such as Start School Later have led the charge. The group contends that public middle and high schools should start at 8 a.m. at the earliest.

Top education officials and thought leaders are starting to take notice as more of these type of findings come into focus.

In August, the Washington Post Editorial Board argued that, “Bleary-eyed teenagers cannot possibly be at their best when, as is the case in several school districts in Maryland and Virginia, they are expected to rise as early as 5:45 a.m. to meet their buses every weekday.”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan offered his support towards measures to push back morning start times over Twitter. He tweeted, “Common sense to improve student achievement that few have implemented: let teens sleep more, start school later.”

The tendency to stay up late and sleep in fades during early adulthood for many people. The people who remain night owls often face similar disadvantages over their careers.


  1. 1 Ross 16 Feb
    Thought I'd add a viewpoint from here in Britain. Our schools generally start at around 8.45am, and there have been several discussions in the media in recent years around concerns that this is too early for teenagers. Many of our students struggle to get to school on time and focus on their learning on this schedule - which further highlights the total madness of the much earlier US schedules as outlined in this article.

    Speaking from my personal experience, morning classes were a write-off. I never felt awake before lunchtime.
  2. 2 Lynn M. Keefe,MD, FAAP 15 Nov
        I am a community pediatrician in Florida helping to promote wellness and the best health and academic outcomes for the children in my community. 
        Teens are remarkable human beings! When granted the opportunity to sleep 8.5 to 9 hours starting at their natural, biologically set bedtime of 11:30 to 7:30, they have 16 hours of productive daytime, awake hours to attend school, do homework and extracurricualr activities, work jobs, and even have free time at the end of the day. 
      Going to bed "on time" for adolescent during the school year is near the 11:30pm.   When  school bus routes start at 5:40a.m. and the school bell rings at 7a.m., these teens are sleep deprived and will suffer academically and their health deteriorates during the school year. 
      Start School Later  is focused on the healthy school hours starting after 8a.m. The change will benefit the acdemic and health outcomes for all adolescent students.
  3. 3 Terra Ziporyn Snider, Ph.D. 14 Nov
    I agree with Stacy Simera. While I'm delighted that AASM is addressing teen sleep deprivation and unhealthily early school hours, there seems to be some confusion here about what's really going on in many schools today. Classes don't start "as early as 7:30 a.m." Many start as early as 7, with "zero hours" even earlier, and bus runs earlier still. Few start after 8:30 a.m. What this means is that most teens today, whether they are natural "night owls" or not, cannot possibly get close to 9 hours of sleep on school nights. The mental & physical health consequences are serious and cannot be resolved by individual students or families. I urge the sleep community to join with us at Start School Later as we try to address what is a public health problem and must be addressed as such.--Terra Z. Snider, PhD, Executive Director, Start School Later
  4. 4 Stacy Simera, MSSA, LISW-S, SAP 14 Nov
    The terminology used in this article is concerning - ie that being a 'night owl' or 'staying up late' are choices that teens make which interefer in sleep, and that teens have a tendency to 'sleep in'.  Given the biological later shift in sleep cycle that occurs during puberty - saying that late bedtimes for teens is a problem is like saying that growing taller during teen years is a problem.  We adults can't change this curve ball in sleep cycle thrown at teens during puberty, but we can change the practice of making kids wake up at biologically inappropriate and unhealthy times.   Later school start times do not allow a teen to 'sleep in', they allow a teen to 'sleep'.