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Researchers lift duvet on teenage sleep

Teenagers have little reason to like researchers. After all, they always seem to be telling them that the food they want to eat is bad for their health while homework does them a power of good.

But now a team of education researchers from the University of Minnesota have endeared themselves to American adolescents by producing a finding that is almost too good to be true. Having examined teenagers' sleep patterns they have concluded that they should be granted an extra hour in bed ... on schoolday mornings.

Adolescents are said to need nine hours' sleep a night on average compared with adults' eight hours. However, previous US research has suggested that students get less sleep as they move through high school. One 1996 study found that 13-year-olds slept for 7hrs, 42 mins, compared with 19-year-olds' 7hrs, 4 mins.

This sleep deprivation can result in memory deficits, impaired information processing, and reduced creativity. It is also said to leave adolescents more prone to accidents, more vulnerable to drugs and alcohol and add to their moodiness and difficult behaviour.

But the Minnesota researchers now believe that such problems can be remedied if schools allow teenagers to start lessons an hour later than younger children.

Joel Frederickson and his colleagues found that children in one school district that adopted this tactic went to bed only slightly later on average than teenagers in two other districts where the early start times were retained (11.21pm compared with 11.20pm and 11.09pm in the other two districts).

However, as they were able to get up later they averaged 7hrs 46mins' sleep a night compared with the 6hrs 47mins of students in the other districts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the late-start teenagers reported less sleepiness, less erratic sleep behaviours and less depression than their peers.

"The evidence from this study suggests that high-school administrators should strongly consider starting their schools later in the morning," Joel Frederickson told the American Educational Research Association conference in Montreal last week. "Students are more likely to get greater amounts of sleep at night and are less likely to be sleepy in their classes."

But before British teenagers start demanding similar treatment they should bear in mind that US high schools traditionally start work very much earlier than UK secondary schools. In the two districts that operated "normal" school hours the starting time was 7.30am. And even the late-start schools opened for business at 8.30am.

The old adage of "early to bed, early to rise" may therefore still apply after all ...

"The adolescent sleep crisis: can later school start times help?", by Joel D Frederickson, Kyla Wahlstrom and Gordy Wrobel, University of Minnesota. The paper can downloaded from AERA reports, 30-31

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