The biological reason scientists say teenagers should start school later in the day

As the start of the schooling year fast approaches, calls are mounting to allow teenagers to hit snooze on their alarms for the dreaded early school wake-up.

According to researchers, biological changes are preventing teenagers from waking up for the set school hours well-rested and ready to start the day.

It's prompting calls from a New Zealand research group for schools to start no earlier than 9:45am for year 12 and 13 students in New Zealand.  

Students' sleep is influenced by many factors such as social media, after-school activity, homework and cultural sleep norms but the major factor in the argument for later school times is sleep biology, a group of researchers said in an opinion piece on The New Zealand Medical Journal (NZMJ). 

Sleep patterns change during puberty to favour later bedtimes which is why teens stay more alert than adults at night, the article co-authored by University of Otago's Paediatric Sleep Research Group leader Professor Barbara Galland said.

It said adolescence have a delay in releasing the "night" melatonin that helps people sleep and the melatonin to help waking up in the morning is released about three hours later than adults.

"In essence, this means that waking a teen at 7am every day is similar to waking an adult at 4am."

"Waking a teen at 7am every day is similar to waking an adult at 4am."
"Waking a teen at 7am every day is similar to waking an adult at 4am." Photo credit: Getty Images

As bedtimes become later with each passing year of adolescence, coupled with an early wake up time, teenagers develop a "sleep debt" across the weekdays which they repay during the weekends and holidays.

The piece in the NZMJ compares this to "social jet lag" because it was similar to moving through time zones.

It said "social jet lag" can be detrimental for teens, with links to attention problems, depressive symptoms, poorer academic performance, higher risk of substance use, overweight/obesity, self-harm and suicidality.

The NZMJ article cited research that found around 39 percent of New Zealand teens slept less than the recommended eight to 10 hours and 57 percent said their sleep was poor quality.

The article said lack of sleep not only affects education performance but also is linked to areas such as health, mood and behavioural problems.

"Later school start times are a 'no-brainer' in order to address the poor sleep of adolescents as a pathway towards the better health and wellbeing of senior high school students in Aotearoa," the authors said. 

It comes as the country grappled with a truancy crisis as attendance among students declined dramatically in 2022.

Data released in November showed only 39.9 percent of Kiwi students attended school regularly in 2022 compared with 59.7 percent in 2021 and 64.2 percent in 2020.  

The research group is surveying students, parents, teachers and principals for their study on later start times. To contribute click here.