Early to bed and early to rise might make a teenager wise — but it would also make them quite an anomaly based on teens I know.
A recent career switch has allowed me to work with middle school students during the week, and one thing I discovered early on is that many of them stay up ridiculously late at night. Students, their voices heavy with weariness, will tell teachers that they were up until 1 a.m. or later on school nights.
For the most part, they don’t seem to be staying up doing homework or reading. Many of them freely confess to fiddling around with their smartphones, chatting with other teen night owls on social media apps such as Snapchat and Instagram. The result is that some of these students groggily drag themselves to school, bleary-eyed, and have trouble learning the rest of the day.
Children’s sleep schedules and school start times have long been a nagging issue for many school districts and families. Older students often go to school an hour or more later than younger children so that they can get enough sleep to be rested for a full school day. Even so, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that between 60% and 70% of teenagers don’t get enough sleep.
Throw in a global pandemic that disrupted the past school year, shook families out of normal routines and messed with kids’ sleep schedules, and you end up with even more sleepyheads.
Some child health experts have said that the pandemic might have benefited children who attended school virtually during the past year. That’s because kids got sleep in later than usual. With no rush to get ready, gulp down breakfast and make it to the bus stop super early, many students were able to get as much as an extra hour or two of sleep before starting their day online.
However, now that most students are attending school in person at least a couple of days a week, those extra hours on the pillow have disappeared, causing more disruption to families’ lives.
“We’ve definitely seen the pandemic change sleep habits all around,” said Zachary Bird, a Roanoke behavioralist who works with clients who experience disrupted sleep.
Bird said that the changes have upset people’s circadian rhythms, the sort of innate master clock that determines sleep cycles.
“Children have routines of getting up in the morning for school, commuting to school, but COVID changed all that,” said Bird, founder of Principled Behavior Consultants. Now, with school schedules switching back to normal for many students, “the inconsistency in sleep patterns can throw people for a loop,” he said.
Bird said that students who do not get enough sleep tend to be more irritable when awake because of fatigue. Research has shown that tired children have more behavioral problems, throw more tantrums and have a harder time learning.
Bird also said that the amount of time children spend on screens late at night adversely affects their sleep habits.
“For hundreds of thousands of years, humans relied on the orange light of sunset as a signal for the body to go to sleep,” he said. “Screens emit blue lights like daytime lights that keep you up. It takes time to prepare your body for sleep. We try to skip all over that and say, ‘All right, time to sleep.’”
Bird recommends that people stay off their phones an hour before bedtime in order to properly prepare for a good night’s sleep. He admits that he, too, is tempted to check his phone before bedtime, so he recharges it in the kitchen where it stays out of reach.
Bird advises that people — whether students or parents — try to stick to a firm sleeping schedule, even during weekends. As a father of a 3-year-old and a 9-month old, he knows that’s a difficult thing to do. For people who like to take naps during the day, he said that a morning nap is less disruptive to a sleep schedule than an afternoon siesta.
Adults also have had the same sleep disruptions as children, as workplaces closed, meetings were held via teleconferencing apps and doing time-consuming pre-work tasks such as, well, showering and getting fully dressed were optional. That’s changing, though, as offices reopen and kids go back to the classroom. Parents are having to adjust their sleep schedules, too.
Of course, just as familiar school-day patterns are re-emerging, the end of the school year is approaching, which means that summer will soon present its usual routine-busting disruptions just as many students are getting used to waking up earlier.
“My son has a bedtime of 8 o’clock,” Bird said, “and that’s hard to do when light is still coming through the bedroom window.”
Doing something as natural as sleeping isn’t always as easy as it should be. Get some shut-eye, folks.