Let Teenagers Sleep In

06/12/2015 12:17 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2016

My 12-year-old middle schooler is up late after baseball and basketball games and practices end at 10 p.m.

Even on his rare "free nights" he has difficulty falling asleep.

He's resorted to drinking warm milk or even taking melatonin or Benadryl.

Like many pre-teens and teens, he is getting harder and harder to wake up.

Early morning school start times, most commonly 7 to 7:30 a.m. is just one of the ways our country sabotages teens who aren't physically able to adjust.

Are we really willing to sacrifice the health of our teens by choosing to start school before daylight?

Many high schools today start school at 7 a.m., a practice started several decades ago to save money by recycling school bus runs.

Now considerable research confirms that these school start times are inconsistent with sleep needs of teenagers and young adults and are seriously undermining school performance as well as children's health and welfare.

Because politics, money, and other logistical issues inevitably keep most school systems from changing start times, we need a national minimum start time for all public schools to make it easier for communities to do what's best for the safety, health, and learning of all children of every age when they set local schedules.

There is even a MoveOn campaign to change school start times and to promote national legislation to prevent public schools starting before 8 a. m.

Complicating sleep patterns for teens is that 68 percent of these teens also keep an electronic device on all night -- a television, computer, video game or something similar, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

These devices emit light of all colors, but it's the blues in particular that pose a danger to sleep. Blue light prevents the release of melatonin, a hormone associated with inducing sleep.

In teens, melatonin isn't released until around 11 p.m. which proves teens are biologically wired to fall asleep later.

The sleep-disrupting effects of such devices might be even more significant for older teens, ages 15 to 17, almost all of whom reported having electronic devices in their bedrooms.

Reading from light-emitting, e-reader devices has profound biological effects, according to Charles Czeisler, director of the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School.

His study demonstrates that light affects not only melatonin levels, but also subjective alertness.

"While teens have all the same risks of light exposure, but they are systematically sleep-deprived because of how society works against their natural clocks," said sleep researcher Steven Lockley of Harvard Medical School.

He's been researching circadian rhythms, released of melatonin, and the effects of light exposure in humans for years. He concludes, "Asking a teenager to get up at 7 a.m. is like asking me to get up at 4 a.m."

In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a position statement recommending school starting at 8:30 a.m.

The recommendations include the education and encouragement of healthy sleep habits citing the biological and environmental issues, which contribute to insufficient sleep, including enforcing a media curfew.

Pediatrician, Dr. Sue Hubbard of The Kid's Doctor, recommends sitting down as a family with children of all ages to construct a "family media use plan."

There should be mealtime and bedtime "curfews" when devices are docked with clear rules of when to "put the devices to bed." The most difficult part is for parents to follow the same rules.

The AAP also advises health-care professionals to educate parents, educators, athletic coaches and other stakeholders about the biological and environmental factors that contribute to insufficient sleep.

My daughter will begin high school next year. Right now her middle school starts at 9 a.m.

I worry that next year if she will be ready at 6:30 a.m. for the bus to pick her up? Will she have to sacrifice marching band to get adequate sleep?

Americans, wake up! Our teens need to sleep. The research is compelling enough. Invest in our kids. Do the right thing. Delay school start times.