There may be more science and policy impact than many parents, teachers, and coaches realize when they joke that teen-agers can be so slow to mature now they’re almost like aliens. Young people, in fact, may need distinctive school schedules, courts, and reproductive awareness programs—all based on building research about adolescent brain and body development.
School start times and growing kids’ sleep needs
Let’s start with one of the common flashpoints in many households with teens: getting up and to school on time. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine has just joined with the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in recommending that middle and high schools start the day no earlier than 8:30 a.m.
As reported by these organizations and the health researchers at RAND Corp.— the independent, nonpartisan think tank—there is now a “consensus in the scientific and medical communities that early school start times are not only a threat to students’ academic performance, but also to public health. Even so, over four out of five U.S. middle and high schools still require students to be in class before 8:30 a.m., because frankly, changing school start times is hard. It presents logistical challenges that can have ripple effects on students, families, and communities.”
Researchers say youths’ brain development demands they get more sleep. In the increasingly complex world they must operate, with tons of information and skills to digest and incorporate, this added brain time is sorely needed. This can mean adolescents aren’t early birds. But depriving them of required rest and starting school early contributes to teens’ high rates of vehicle wrecks, as well as their abuse of cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs.
Schools, parents, and employers know how challenging it can be to shift schedules to accommodate teens but another key step in figuring how it can be done will occur this week here in the nation’s capital with a policy-maker and expert conference on the issue.
I’ve written how critical sleep can be to the health of all us, young and old. In my practice, I see not only the major harms that patients can suffer while seeking medical services but also the lasting carnage that can result from vehicle wrecks. It’s a challenge in homes across the country these days, with all the adults working to make ends meet, to try to get square a family schedule. But teens and grown-ups alike need to adapt better to adolescents’ needs for sleep—it’s too big a health issue to ignore.
A court responds to young adults’ developmental challenges
Meantime, across the country in San Francisco, the New York Times has reported on a legal experiment, based in medical science and launched by the district attorney to try to help youthful offenders. They are ages 18 to 24, with clear records, and stand accused of committing lesser offenses. San Francisco’s DA thinks, based on studies he has seen and experts he has consulted with, that the young people may exercise poor judgement that leads to their bad acts because of biological, development challenges—not necessarily that they’re criminals or so inclined.
The New York Times story runs through some of the supporting studies, including research on impulse control and brain growth, prompting the West Coast diversion program. It provides extensive support and counseling to offenders, rather than pushing them on another dismal and well-studied path—becoming denizens of the judicial system, then hard-core criminals.
To be sure, criticisms and attempts to reform the juvenile justice system, including approaches for older youths, are extensive and not novel. The Washington, D.C., courts operate a juvenile division, with programs focusing on behavioral health matters. And there’s major medical-scientific work still be done to significantly alter and improve brain health, social and cognitive development, and to adjust behavioral disorders.
But credit’s due to a public legal system that’s trying and that has found funding to help the young—an issue that has vexed too many other courts, which also have fallen short in protecting our vulnerable future.
Don’t cut Uncle Sam’s pregnancy prevention program
Staying ahead of young people and helping them prevent costly unintended pregnancies should be a desirable public health goal, right? Well, advocates for one of the largest, and what they say is one of the nation’s most successful such initiative are sounding alarms about how it may be reduced or cut off due to President Trump’s call for slashes in the federal budget.
The Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, part of the federal Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Adolescent Health, faces a major ax, potentially losing half its $100 million funding, even though data show its efforts have worked.
As Stat, an online health information site, has noted: “Teen birth rates have been declining since the 1990s. New data reveal an even sharper drop in the five years following the inception of the TPP program, from about 34 births per 1,000 girls in 2010 to 22 per 1,000 in 2015—a 35 percent decrease.”
Advocates emphasize that the prevention program, of course, isn’t itself providing contraceptives to young people, nor are many of its measures to avert unplanned pregnancies new or original. But they say that communicating with teens today does require novel, concentrated, and coordinated efforts. Modern teens remain uninformed about pregnancy risks and prevention, and they require new ways to get them this critical information, including social media, video, and other timely means.
As I’ve written, the social and economic effects of unintended pregnancies remain high: among women 19 and younger, 4 out of 5 pregnancies were unintended, federal health experts say, and an estimated nine percent — or 900,000 — of young men between the ages of 12 and 16 will become fathers before their 20th birthday.
It’s penny wise and pound foolish to slash away at relatively inexpensive health efforts like the teen pregnancy prevention program. Not to be too snarky, but it’s less costly and returns more than what American taxpayers are forking over for President Trump to travel so often to South Florida to play golf. If he can use his putter on any of the perfectly nice and much cheaper courses nearer the nation’s capital so more kids avoid unintended pregnancies in the days ahead, that’s smart money in my book.