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  • Writer's pictureSociety of Bioethics and Medicine

Early School Start Times & Sleep Deprivation

Updated: Apr 4, 2023

Written by Sultona Davlatova

Edited by Christopher Orzech

I am sure most of us remember the grueling process of trying to get out of bed on a weekday, the streets still dark, with thoughts of a whole school day ahead of us. If that sounds familiar to you, I would not be surprised to hear if you were sleep deprived most of those mornings, too. Many people do not realize how damaging lack of sleep is for a person’s health. However, when sleep deprivation is classified as a public health epidemic by the CDC, it might be time to take this issue seriously.

School is supposed to improve the lives of children, and provide them with better opportunities for their futures. However, when the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that schools start classes no earlier than 8:30 AM, yet most public middle and high schools in America start before then, how is this conducive to that mission?

Continuous lack of sleep in adolescence leads to an increased risk of obesity, metabolic dysfunction, and increased cardiovascular morbidity. In countries like the U.S, lifestyle-related illnesses are rampant, and sleep deprivation could be a contributing variable to poor health. When high school students are driving to school with less than 7 hours of sleep their reflexes may be impaired, one of the most dangerous physical effects is an increased likelihood of a car accident due to drowsy driving. Additionally, the risk of microsleep (involuntarily falling asleep for a very short amount of time) increases with drowsiness and further endangers the lives of young drivers. Even though microsleep is usually brief, it can still be lethal on the road.

When we face circumstances that leave us with inadequate sleep, many try to compensate with caffeine. So, it is no surprise that chronic sleep loss in adolescents leads to higher rates of caffeine consumption and increased risk of caffeine overdose, which can result in breathing trouble, seizures, vomiting, and hallucinations. What happens when caffeine is not enough? Students may turn to nonmedical use of stimulant medications. Stimulant medications are used to increase alertness, attention, and energy–most commonly in the treatment of ADHD and narcolepsy. However, it is not uncommon for people to obtain these drugs without a prescription, and use them in ways that are dangerous, such as increasing the dosage or using them recreationally. Students may use these kinds of drugs in an attempt to improve their academic performance and/or lessen the cognitive effects of sleep loss. The consistent misuse of these stimulant drugs can result in psychosis. Furthermore, taking prescription stimulants at a dose too high can cause dangerously high body temperature, heart failure, and seizures.

The physical effects and the harmful methods students may use to counteract them are only half of the story. Lack of sleep also negatively impacts mental health, increasing the risk for anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation in children, problems that are already prevalent among American teenagers. Behavioral problems may also ensue. Due to the ongoing development of their prefrontal cortices, children and teenagers are even more susceptible to poor impulse control and increased risk taking behaviors when they do not get enough sleep. In a 2011 study, evidence showed that teenagers getting less than 8 hours of sleep had an increased likelihood of engaging in physical fights, alcohol consumption, smoking, and marijuana use than those getting 8 or more hours of sleep.

Children need sleep to grow up strong and healthy; there is no disputing this fact. So, why are growing children forced to wake up at hours so counterproductive to their wellbeing by a system that is meant to enrich their minds and improve their lives?


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