BY MATTHEW J. WOLF-MEYER
Assistant professor of anthropology, University of California, Santa Cruz
So over the life course, it’s perfectly normal to sleep as much as twelve hours (even more for infants) and as little as four in a day. Along with these changes in sleep needs are changes in the time of sleep onset: as infants, most of us fall asleep earlier than we will as teenagers or adults; in our later years, we’ll wake up well before we do as children or adults. Sometimes we think about these differences in our sleep as pathological and seek out medical help, especially adults who start sleeping less than they used to, who often complain of insomnia despite feeling well rested.
But before we’re adults, we’re often at the mercy of other people’s interpretations of our sleep. And no one has a harder time garnering respect for their sleep needs than teenagers.
As a teenager, I started high school at 7:30 a.m. (yep, Rochester Adams still hasn’t changed its start time since then.) I would often get to sleep around 11 p.m. or later – not because I was playing video games or texting, which didn’t exist in 1991, but because my circadian cue for sleep onset was later than it had been when I was a child. I would have to wake up around 6:30 a.m. to be to school on time, which often meant that I was sleeping 6 or fewer hours each night. I don’t think I remember anything from my first two periods throughout high school. I would sleepwalk through my morning and "wake up" around midday. I would often nap in the afternoon. And still my daily sleep wouldn’t add up to nine or more hours.
There’s a nice piece on the CBC about experiments with changing school start times that includes an interview with the principal of the Canadian schools involved. It reviews the science of adolescent sleep, which shows that sleep onset at adolescence is later – sometimes as late as 11 p.m. or midnight. Alongside that later onset is a need for greater sleep, on average ten hours each night. The school day for students participating in this program runs from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., no shorter than for those peers who start at 8 a.m. or earlier. And there’s some anecdotal evidence that it improves grades and attendance. What’s most interesting about the story – as is so often the case – is the comments. Adults weighing in on this change in start times refer to teenagers as lazy, point to their distraction by media technologies and lack of daily labor, and generally dismiss the science of sleep.
Was I just lazy as a teenager?
Are today’s teenagers more easily distracted away from sleep with the proliferation of media technologies?
The science says no. But why might adults be so rigid in their thinking about the social obligation of the school day? Many commenters on the CBC article fall into a slippery slope fallacy, assuming that today’s "lazy" teenagers will be tomorrow’s "lazy" workers and demand that work times shift to later in the day as well. The science doesn’t point to the need to change our work days – though there have been some movements towards flextime and workplace napping – but many of the adult commenters don’t even appear to buy the premise that sleep needs change throughout the life course.
As I discuss at length in The Slumbering Masses, the basis of modern school start times lies in the 19th century, when public schools were developed to care for the children of day laborers—meanwhile, the elite would send their children to boarding schools. The school day developed alongside the industrial workday to allow parents to drop off their children while they worked. There’s nothing natural about it—it isn’t based on some agrarian past where we were more in balance with nature. Instead, it had everything to do with the need to fill factories with able-bodied adults from dawn until dusk and to keep their children busy. Only slowly did this change, as American work schedules changed. Now science can support the organization of our daily obligations – or at least support the advocacy for more flexible institutions, that take things like variations in sleep need seriously.
But why be so rigid in thinking about teenagers being lazy and school start times being just fine as they are?
One of the things that comes through in the comments to the CBC story is that many adults feel as if they did just fine in high school, and that today’s youth should be just fine as well. In one commenter’s language, changing school start times amounts to "molly coddling" teenagers and playing into their entitlement. High school, it seems, is hazing for entry into the "real" world of adulthood, emblematized by work. While this is surely part of what school is intended to do – it models the demands of the workday with deadlines and expectations of outcomes – it is primarily intended to produce competent citizens. If changing the start time to slightly later in the day leads to more engaged citizens and more capable workers, shouldn’t we change our school days?
More insidious and less obvious is that many people have come to think of our social arrangements of time as being based in some innate human nature. If we accept the basic premise that sleep changes over the life course, that alone would nullify any standard of time usage. But many people tend to rely on small sample sizes to think about what’s natural and what’s not; just because modern social formations work for you – or seem to – doesn’t mean that they’re natural or that they work for everyone. How many cups of coffee do you drink each day? Or how much caffeinated soda? Have you eaten a snack today to offset sleepiness? Or taken a nap? Could you have gotten through your day a little easier if you slept in an extra hour?
There’s nothing natural about alarm clocks. And many sleep researchers and physicians would say that they’re one of the worst things for good sleep. But we use them anyway. Maybe it’s time we start to take the science of sleep a little more seriously and begin to rethink how we want our days to be organized. If we could be happier and healthier workers and students, it’s worth the investment in change and thinking past our expectations of nature and norms.
The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life, available in October 2012 from University of Minnesota Press. He blogs regularly here.
"A groundbreaking contribution to our understanding of sleep and its manifold discontents. With scrupulous care, Matthew Wolf-Meyer probes the current state of sleep medicine as well as its absorbing history. At a time when modern society’s dependence on sleeping pills and plush bedding has never been greater, The Slumbering Masses is all the more welcome for its ambitious compass and penetrating insights."
—A. Roger Ekirch, author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past