If millions of young folks in the nation’s largest state seem even sunnier than before, that may be because they are getting a wee bit more needed shut eye: California has become the first state in the nation to order public schools to roll back their start times, so middle school classes generally won’t start before 8 in the morning and high school teaching doesn’t start until after 8:30 a.m.
The rule — pushed by experts and resisted by parents juggling already hectic and conflicting family schedules — will be phased in over three years. It also will be accompanied by yet more research on how teens doze and how sleep can best benefit their rapidly growing minds and bodies.
California’s later start to teens’ schools got a boost from groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics, the California Medical Assn., and the California State Parent Teacher Assn. They cited a growing body of research, including by organizations like the RAND Corporation, tying more sleep from later start times to adolescents’ better school performance and health.
Wendy M. Troxel, a RAND Ph. D., recently reported on her findings that sleep-deprived teens may be at increased risk for unsafe sexual behaviors, such as not using condoms or having sex under the influence of alcohol or drugs. She has said that, “Teens by and large are not getting the recommended eight to 10 hours of sleep a night, due to a number of reasons, including biological changes in circadian rhythms, early school start times, balancing school and extracurricular activities and peer social pressures. Insufficient sleep may increase the potential for sexual risk-taking by compromising decision-making and influencing impulsivity.”
The California measure carves out exceptions for the later school start times, recognizing, for example, that rural areas may face greater difficulties in complying with the prospective rule. Families also may get teens into early classes by choice, as the law exempts optional, so-called “zero hour” classes, some of which meet as early as 7 in the morning.
Teacher unions and local district officials opposed the state law, arguing decision making about school schedules should best be decided in individual communities. The measure certainly complicates families’ lives, especially in sprawling, car-obsessed areas like Los Angeles and in the packed Bay Area. Parents may have greater worries about getting themselves to work on time, while also driving kids of varying ages to schools that now may start at split times. Still, many youths quoted by media, acknowledging that they go to be late, were happy that they might get even a little reprieve in needing to roll out of bed early and way before their minds and bodies would be ready to do so.
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the injuries that can be inflicted on babies, children, and young people. Parents — for the lives of their daughters and sons — find themselves figuratively leaping tall buildings in single bounds, trying to safeguard their kids from an ever-changing array of challenges, including helping them through the turbulent time when their minds and bodies change rapidly and shove them into adulthood.
We all benefit from sound sleep, and the lack of it costs the nation hundreds of billions of dollars in health harms and loss productivity. It also makes common sense that young people who are well-rested will be less grumpy, more social, and better able to handle academic and life challenges. It also would be great if moms, dads, grandparents, uncles, and aunts could magically fix the world, so it is less hectic, demanding, and stressful for teens growing up now. (Maybe we all, for example, could dial down the emphasis on injurious extra-curricular “success.”)
Young people clearly confront significant pressures with which too many of them can’t cope: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just reported that teen suicides occur at “alarming” rates, increasing faster than this mental health problem occurs in any other age group. As the Washington Post said:
“For many years, suicide among youths was relatively rare and its frequency relatively stable. But from 2007 to 2017, the number of suicides among people ages 10 to 24 suddenly increased 56% — from 6.8 deaths per 100,000 people to 10.6, the new report shows. Suicide has become the second-most common cause of death among teenagers and young adults, overtaking homicides and outpaced only by accidents.”
The newspaper reported that experts can’t provide easy explanations for the teen suicide surge:
“Firearms are one factor looming over both worrisome trends. The United States has more guns per capita than any other country. It also has by far a higher rate of gun deaths than any other wealthy country. And while violent homicides often grab headlines, more gun deaths every year are attributed to suicide. The sharp increase in teen suicides has especially frustrated and puzzled researchers, who have struggled to explain its causes. Some have attributed it to changing social structures, lack of community and the rise of social media and smartphones. Others have pointed to bullying and less sleep.”
This is unacceptable, and it may show why California lawmakers’ school start time action is needed. Sure, critics may call the Golden State law making an example of intrusive, Big Brother conduct by a “nanny state.”
But it also is worth saying that the exasperating, sad, and partisan gridlock in Washington, D.C., is not only putting greater pressure on states to lead the way in advancing Americans’ health and safety, interesting actions are occurring in spots like California. Sacramento may provide the nation a guide in health care legislation by: giving the attorney general more power to pursue Big Pharma’s skyrocketing drug costs; cracking down on vaccine exemptions; slashing at profiteering in the care of patients with advanced kidney disease and who require dialysis; and allowing pharmacists, without doctor prescriptions, to provide medications to protect against HIV-AIDS.
Policies and laws, of course, can have unintended consequences, and voters will need time to see how the California measures, including on school start times, work through. But maybe we all sleep better when, in state capitals, officials hold hearings, consult with experts, build evidence, debate, and act on pressing concerns on our health and other matters. Didn’t Washington once work that way, too?