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Research of the Month: Letting teens sleep in improves their grades

Lucy Goodchild van Hilten, 29th January 2019

In the first of our new regular monthly blog posts written by Science Wordsmith Lucy Goodchild, we explore the findings and attention around a piece of research published in the previous month that caught the public’s attention. Listen to the accompanying podcast here.

Why a sleep study in Science Advances caught the world’s attention.

Teenagers are lazy. They sleep in, they’re tired when they go to school and they don’t perform as well as they could. Sound familiar? Teenagers hear this kind of criticism a lot. Yet, on the whole, it’s not laziness but biology that’s making them sleep longer – and the tiredness and underperformance may well be down to the structure society is imposing on their daily lives.

In Seattle, teenagers are getting a lie-in, and a new study in Science Advancessuggests it’s having a significantly positive impact on their energy and academic performance.

Read the study: “Sleepmore in Seattle: Later school start times are associated with more sleep and better performance in high school students

“It’s very hard to pin down the function of sleep, but it turns out that if you improve your sleep, you basically improve the functioning of every single system in your body, from your mental health to your physical health,” said Professor Horacio de la Iglesia, a professor in the Department of Biology and Director of the Graduate Program in Neuroscience at the University of Washington in the USA. “I was part of a grassroots movement to try to delay school start times – I was the voice of sleep medicine – because we knew from a lot of laboratory studies and basic research that early starts are not good for teenagers.”

Horacio de la Iglesia, PhD, Professor in the Department of Biology and Director of the Graduate Program in Neuroscience at the University of Washington. Find out more about his work:

And they really did have an early start in Seattle: until 2016, high school started at 07:50am. Finally, the school district agreed to delay the start time to 08:45am, giving the teenagers almost an hour extra in the mornings, and giving Prof. de la Iglesia and his team the perfect opportunity to study the impact of later school start times in real life.

Prof. de la Iglesia and his team, including Gideon Dunster, the lead author of the paper, studied the effect of the delayed school times on students in two schools, looking at their sleeping patterns, their sleepiness in class and their academic performance. To compare results, they studied the students in three science classes in the spring of 2016 (before the change) and then repeated the studies with the new students in those same classes in the spring of 2017 (after the change). Self-reported sleep is very unreliable, so they used wearable monitors to measure sleep.

The results were striking: the teenagers slept 34 minutes longer, their attendance improved, and their grades went up by 4.5 percent.

“That is a huge gain in sleep,” said Prof. de la Iglesia. “If you’re chronically sleep deprived and you can add half an hour to your nightly sleep, that’s a great improvement in the right direction.” And about the improvements in grades, he added: “It’s a tremendous gain for any intervention that you’d hope to make a dent on school performance.”

Actionable results, big impact

The results were not only interesting for the schools trialing the late start times; when the team contacted the press office at the University of Washington it was clear the story would be a hit. “The university has a very good press office, and as soon as I contacted them and told them the result, they were all here within a day… with cameras,” said Prof. de la Iglesia.

The press office sent a press release out to their contacts, and as soon as it hit journalists’ inboxes, Prof. de la Iglesia’s phone started ringing. “At some point, I had to just unplug it and do some work,” he recalled. “We had to kind of sort the journalists out, between my grad student and myself.”

The coverage has been global, with articles in Le Monde(France), El País(Spain), Orlando Sentinel(Canada), Focus(Italy) and even the World Economic Forum, in addition to extensive coverage in the US, particularly in local news outlets like The Seattle Times.

“I think the fact that it’s the biggest school district in the US to have gone through that change drew the attention of many people. I think it was a combination of factors, but the main reason is that people really care about this.”

Explore the attention around the article here.

The study also made an impression online, starting with a solitary tweet from Prof. de la Iglesia. “It’s kind of funny because I didn’t even know how to send a tweet,” he said. “I had to go to my grad student and ask, ‘can you tell me how I do this?’ And he showed me how and that was my very first tweet. And I don’t think it’s ever going to be beaten.”

He might be right: so far, nearly 20,000 tweets have linked to the study, from all over the world. It’s a little early to say what the impact of the attention has been, but he has already been contacted by schools in California looking to do the same, and he’s hoping to see other school districts follow suit.

For now, Prof. de la Iglesia and the team are continuing their work; they are studying sleep in indigenous communities in Argentina with no electric light to determine how industrialized society has affected our sleep, and studying sleep in homeless populations in the US. They have also submitted an article in collaboration with a group in Brazil, where high school is in two tiers – morning and afternoon – looking at sleep and performance in those students.

“Obviously, we do science to try to get closer to the truth and sometimes the truth is unexciting, but in this case, it is great to have all that press coverage,” said Prof. de la Iglesia. “It’s particularly rewarding for me that this is taking place in my community, in my local school district. Seeing that this is impacting kids and families, right here, right now, is a very comforting thing to see.”

What does he hope people take away from the coverage? “Your kids are not lazy. They’re just trying to get the sleep they need. They need eight to 10 hours a day and if they’re lucky, they’re getting seven. And that’s a problem and their biology is not going to change, so we’re much better off if we change our schedules around their biology.

Prof. de la Iglesia’s top tip for promoting research

“I think it’s really important to convey a clear message, and then if you get their attention with that message, you can show them the data; it’s really critical to combine a clear message with data that supports that message. I think the data in our paper is clear enough that you can present it to a 12-year-old and they can understand what happened, even if you don’t know any statistics or you’re not an expert in sleep.”

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