Scarlet Smithies, 17, agrees that she is more awake and productive later in the day. Photo: Louise KennerleyMost students are experiencing daily “jet lag” because of school and university starting times and it is significantly impacting their grades and increasing their risk of suicide and depression, prompting a renewed call for school starts to be delayed.
Only 40 per cent of students have body clocks that match their academic schedule, while nearly half of all students experience at least 30 minutes of “social jet lag” because they start their day earlier than they naturally would and 10 per cent start their day later, found a study of nearly 15,000 students at Northeastern Illinois University, which was published inNatureon Friday.
While being an early bird or late riser mostly comes down to genetics, the study found that all students across different age groups perform worse in the mornings and improve throughout the day.
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This improvement is greatest for early birds, while late risers continue to perform relatively worse than other students even in the afternoons and evenings.
Scarlet Smithies, 17, said she has to wake up at 6.15am for school, which starts at 8.25am.
“I’m normally quite tired and I’m not able to focus much in class,” said Scarlet, who is currently in year 12 at Smith’s Hill High School.
“Period two, which is around 9.30am, is when I’m more awake.”
Scarlet said she wakes up at about 7.30am on weekends and as late as 9am during school holidays, but likes “getting school out of the way”.
“I actually really like starting early because I’m definitely more productive in the afternoon, so I like having that time to study and do homework,” Scarlet said.
Pediatric and adolescent sleep physician at the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research Chris Seton said the phenomenon of “social jet lag”, especially among teenagers, has been long-accepted medically, but most n schools and universities continue to start early because of political and social inertia.
“We know that 70 per cent of teenagers are sleep deprived,” Dr Seton said.
“When they get up in the morning, these kids feel like we would if we were asked to get up at 3am and start work at 4am.
“If I was in control, I’d start two hours later in upper high school and one-and-a-half hours later in lower high school because it gets worse as kids get older.”
A spokesman for the NSW Department of Education said “school time is generally from 9am to 3pm … however, NSW public schools have the flexibility to change the start and finish times of the school day”.
The spokesman said school principals are responsible for choosing start times and the department does not keep a central record of when each public school begins.
Dr Seton said that he is not aware of any public schools that start after 9am, although some begin earlier.
He said that as well as negatively affecting students’ academic performance, sleep deprivation also has major impacts on their mental health.
“One hour of lost sleep in a teenager increases their risk of suicide by 58 per cent compared to a teenager who’s getting good sleep, and sleep-deprived teenagers as a group have a 15 times increased risk of depression and anxiety,” Dr Seton said.
He said students’ body clocks can be adjusted through a 10 to 12-week sleep treatment program but they then need to maintain a relatively early bed time, which teenagers find difficult because of social and academic pressures.
“There’s such a big number of teenagers with this issue that you can’t treat them all, which is why we think starting school later is a good idea,” Dr Seton said.