Russell Foster has a good piece in the New Scientist about teenagers and sleeping:
The biology of human sleep timing, like that of other mammals, changes as we age. This has been shown in many studies. As puberty begins, bedtimes and waking times get later. This trend continues until 19.5 years in women and 21 in men. Then it reverses. At 55 we wake at about the time we woke prior to puberty. On average this is two hours earlier than adolescents. This means that for a teenager, a 7 am alarm call is the equivalent of a 5 am start for a person in their 50s.
Precisely why this is so is unclear but the shifts correlate with hormonal changes at puberty and the decline in those hormones as we age.
However, biology is only part of the problem. Additional factors include a more relaxed attitude to bedtimes by parents, a general disregard for the importance of sleep, and access to TVs, DVDs, PCs, gaming devices, cellphones and so on, all of which promote alertness and eat into time available for sleep.
The amount of sleep teenagers get varies between countries, geographic region and social class, but all studies show they are going to bed later and not getting as much sleep as they need because of early school starts.
Whenever this subject comes up, people invariably respond that if you start school later, kids will just sleep later. QED, or something. While there is no doubt some truth to this, the theory has been tested at various places and the ultimate determination is that kids actually do get more sleep if you let them sleep in. And they perform better.
In the United States, at least, we have a very moralistic view of sleep. I got a little pushback on this post, which criticized an employer for needlessly having rigid hours that resulted in a good employee’s termination. NewDealer phrased it thusly:
Being up in the morning is just one of those things adults should be able to do without complaint. If it is important to you to be up in the afternoon or evenings, find a job that let’s you take that shift. Not the other way around.
I see comments of this sort a lot. I used to buy into it a lot more than I do now. Back when I was working for a workaholic boss, I was pushing the boundaries of my capabilities. I was staying up too late and I was getting too little sleep. I was fighting the alarm clock in the morning. Then, by the time the weekend rolled around, I would be asleep by seven and would stay that way until Saturday. At some point I just became fed up with it. So I went to sleep early. I made a rule about never hitting the snooze button (ever!). And it was, in the overall, a pretty easy transition. So if I could do it, why can’t others?
Then I met Clancy. To say that Clancy isn’t lazy would be an understatement. She is one of the more ambitious people that I know and has a tremendous work ethic. Getting up in the morning? Wow, she just struggles like nothing I’ve ever seen before (in anything but an adolescent, anyway). It doesn’t even matter all that much when she goes to sleep. If she goes to sleep early, she still wants to sleep in. She still struggles mightily to get out of bed. Which has always come to me relatively easy. Except for DST. Another reason I hate that convention. It may be “relatively easy” for me, but it helps a lot if it’s not in utter darkness.
It’s earlybirds who run everything, and so it’s no surprise that school starts earlier in the morning than it maybe should. Or that employers are inflexible with their hours. Sometimes, of course, it’s unavoidable because you need people at the office at particular times during the day and there’s inherently little flexibility. Some consider it desirable because it saves daylight hours.
I personally wonder how often it’s just another case of us shooting ourselves in the food in the name of (secular, in this case) virtue.
That the automatic response by a lot of people to studies on this stuff is the assumption that people who have difficulty getting up in the morning (aka teenagers) would just push their bedtime later tells us a lot, I think.