U.S. Schools Start Too Early And It's Making Teens Overweight, Depressed, And Unhealthy

Shelley Hazen

The morning bell that starts the school day in the majority of U.S. middle and high schools rings way too early. School schedules, in fact, are actually completely at odds with the biological needs of growing teens, potentially leading to a slew of health problems.

A study was just released by the Centers for Disease Control and illuminates a problem every teen in the country already knows -- classes get started too early in the morning, and districts are hard-pressed to do anything about it, NBC News reported.

The average start time in the U.S. is about 8 a.m. Add in enough time for the bus to make its rounds in the neighborhood, and you have a very long day indeed. That may be okay for adults headed to work, but adolescents have specific -- and quite involuntary -- sleep requirements, and if they are not met, the repercussions could be pretty negative.

According to the Washington Post, teenagers require 8.5 to 9.5 hours with the sandman every night, but less than a third get eight hours during the week. And that discrepancy means more than just a bevy of sleepy-eyed youth.

Kids who don't get enough sleep are at risk for the following, very serious, health issues, the CDC warned: they are "more likely to be overweight; not engage in daily physical activity; suffer from depressive symptoms; engage in unhealthy risk behaviors such as drinking, smoking tobacco, and using illicit drugs; and perform poorly in school."

To fix the problem, people may say that youth should just go to bed earlier, but it's not quite that simple. They are actually biologically predisposed, at that age, to be night owls. Teens' biological rhythms mean that they get sleepy late at night, and thus need to sleep in. It's very difficult for a teenager to fall asleep before 11 p.m.

With so many negative effects of sleep deprivation, one would think that districts would try a bit harder to stop starting class too early -- but you'd be wrong. Even though the CDC has dubbed this a significant health concern, changing start times often comes up against a hard wall of backlash, and the opposition isn't usually based on student needs.

One of the reasons administrators begin the day too early is the fact that many students have afternoon commitments -- part-time jobs or extracurriciulars -- which require them to end the day earlier.

However, the biggest problem is financial. Many bus drivers pick up both elementary and high school kids in the morning, and the longer those drivers are out on the road -- which they would be if start times were changed -- the more they have to be paid.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, one superintendent learned that his desire to start 50 minutes later came with a price tag of $21 million, and no one is in the mood right now to shell out more money for budgets. The compromise -- made to accommodate drivers and not students -- was a 20-minute change in the high school start time. To 7:45 a.m. -- which is obviously still far too early.

So until schools change their ways, it's up to teens and their parents to improve their sleeping habits, the CDC advised. That means a sleeping schedule and no technology use at night.

[Photo Courtesy antoniodiaz/Shutterstock]