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Survey: Mira Costa Students Short on Sleep

Nov 06, 2017 08:50PM ● By Jeanne Fratello

Editor's note: This story is the first in a series of articles that will run throughout the school year on issues relating to students' social-emotional wellness.

Mira Costa High School students aren't getting enough sleep, according to a recent survey. And while the lack of sleep might not be news to teens or their parents, teen health experts warn that it could be significant: Fewer hours of sleep can impact teens' health, mood, ability to learn, and safety on the road.

The survey of Mira Costa students - known as the Stanford Study of Student ExperiencesReport - showed that students are getting far below the recommended 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night. The 2,100 students who responded to the survey reported getting an average of about 6 ½ hours per sleep each night (with an average of only 6 ¼ hours per night for 11th graders).

Given the potential consequences of sleep-deprived teens, the Mira Costa Families Connected organization and Mira Costa's Social and Emotional Wellness Committee are seeking to bring more awareness and action to this critical health issue. They have made sleep the central theme of this month's Social and Emotional Wellness Community Education Series.

"The survey results are startling, but not unexpected," said Jennifer Cochran, president of the MBUSD Board of Education. "We know our students are overloaded, and many of them are taking zero period, going to early sports practices, and working on homework late into the night."

Why is it important to get the full amount of recommended hours? According to sleep researcher Wendy Troxel, adolescence is a time of dramatic brain development, particularly in the parts of the brain that have to do with higher order thinking processes such as reasoning, problem-solving, and good judgment. When teenagers don’t get the sleep they need, their brains and bodies suffer. They can’t concentrate as well, they are more moody and irritable, and they’re more susceptible to serious problems such as substance use, depression, and even suicide.

Even though some teens and parents believe that extra sleep on the weekends can compensate for lost time, experts say that’s not the case. “The concept of ‘making up sleep’ is a myth, for the most part,” says Linda Schack, a doctor of adolescent medicine and a member of the MBUSD Medical Advisory Board. “One day of shortened sleep can be made up by a nap or sleeping longer the next day, but a week of shortened sleep cannot be made up by sleeping in on the weekend. Napping is better than nothing, but if it is done too late in the day and for too long, it will only make the person less sleepy at bedtime.”

Schack adds that the solution is not just as simple as sending kids to bed earlier. "Most teens cannot go to bed earlier, because they have a biological shift in the timing of their melatonin production, which regulates sleepiness," she said. "They cannot fall asleep earlier even if they have a large sleep debt. Sleepiness for most adolescents and young adults generally occurs no earlier than 11 p.m."

Many sleep experts think that one solution would be to require a later start time for middle and high schools. In fact, a bill in the California legislature (SB 328) to require middle and high schools to start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. had attracted a great deal of attention – and support – from many school districts including Manhattan Beach. Although that bill is shelved for now, after having failed to receive enough votes, supporters are vowing to bring it back.

Schack says that the main arguments she hears against later start times are that teachers like having an early schedule, parents need to get to work, and sports coaches need to preserve their afternoon game and practice times. 

"My response to all of these is the same," said Schack. "Sleep is required for health. Specifically, sleep causes growth hormone release, promotes immune function and cellular repair. It is also necessary to consolidate learning and memory. Sleep loss impairs ability to perform complex activities such as sports, homework, driving. We need to do the right thing for our kids."

Schack added: "There are at least 400 school districts in the country that have changed to late start, and as far as I’m aware, not a single district regretted the decision and changed back."

In the meantime, some important sleep trends among Mira Costa students are worth examining. For example, on average, students not taking any AP courses report getting significantly more sleep than students taking 1 or more AP courses; and on average, students not taking any Honors courses report getting significantly more sleep than students taking 2 or more Honors courses. Additionally, 76 percent of participants report that schoolwork often or always kept them from getting enough sleep.

Cochran noted that the school board had been vocal of its support of SB 328, and the district would continue to do its part to make sleep a top issue. "The Medical Advisory Board has been warning us about the negative effects of not getting enough sleep," she said, adding that the schools have taken steps to help keep students from overextending themselves. "Mira Costa is now using a Time Management Tool for students during registration each year so they are honest with themselves about how much time their school and extra-curricular activities will take."

For parents, Schack recommends keeping devices out of kids’ bedrooms to promote more sleep, urging them to do homework in a quiet place without distraction to be more efficient, and using the "night shift" mode on phones or computers in the evening hours that shifts from a more-harsh blue light to a softer yellow light. Still, she says, the best thing parents can do is become vocal in advocating later school start times for teens.

The survey of Mira Costa students was done through Challenge Success, a Stanford-based research group that has partnered with schools (including MBUSD) to help students develop skills to help them lead balanced, successful lives. The topic of sleep is the first among many covered in the survey that the Social and Emotional Wellness Committee will be highlighting throughout the year.

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