Starting the school day early can have a negative effect on teens’ mental health

sleepyAlthough how school start times impact adolescent health has been a hot topic recently, previous research has mainly focused on how a later school start time could have a positive effect academically.

The new study, led by URMC clinical assistant professor in Psychiatry, Jack Peltz, Ph.D., is one of the first to show that school start times may have a critical impact on adolescent sleep, daily functioning, and mental health.

For the research Peltz and his team looked at data from 197 students across the country between the ages of 14 and 17.

The teenagers and their parents completed a survey at the start of the study that included questions about the child’s level of sleep hygiene, family socioeconomic status, circadian chronotype (whether you are a “morning person” or “night person”), and school start times.

The teens were then separated into two groups — those who started school before 8:30 am and those who started after 8:30 am — which is currently the recommended start time for high schoolers by the American Academy of Pediatricians.

The students were also asked to keep a sleep diary for a seven-day period to report on their daily sleep hygiene, levels of sleep quality and duration, and their depressive/anxiety symptoms.

For teens, good sleep hygiene includes avoiding caffeinated drinks after 6 pm, turning off phones and electronic devices before bedtime, maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, and getting between eight and 10 hours of sleep a night.

Peltz found that good sleep hygiene was directly associated with lower average levels of daily depressive and anxiety symptoms across all students.

In addition, these levels were even lower in students who started school after 8:30 am.

However, students with good sleep hygiene and earlier school start times had higher average daily depressive/anxiety symptoms.

“Our results suggest that good sleep hygiene practices are advantageous to students no matter when they go to school,” says Peltz. “Maintaining a consistent bedtime, getting between eight and 10 hours of sleep, limiting caffeine, turning off the TV, cell phone and video games before bed… these efforts will all benefit their quality of sleep and mental health. However, the fact that school start times showed a moderating effect on mental health symptoms, suggests that better sleep hygiene combined with later school start times would yield better outcomes.”

The findings can be found published online in the journal Sleep Health.