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Starting school later easier health fix than sending teens to bed

First lessons of the day are wasted on sleepy teenagers.

First lessons of the day are wasted on sleepy teenagers. Photo: iStock

 Starting the school day later in the morning would be better for the health of teenagers, sleep experts say.

Professor of Health Sciences at the University of South Australia Tim Olds said children who went to bed later tended to get up later and were less healthy than other kids, but that being able to start school later would help them to improve their diet and boost their exercise levels.

“We can either move the kids or we can move the world – either try to get the kids to go to bed earlier or to shift the world a little bit, perhaps by starting school later,” Professor Olds said.

“Strange as it seems, shifting the world may be easier than shifting the kids’ bedtime.”


 Candlebark School’s new secondary campus will start lessons at 10.30am from next year, finishing the day at 5pm.

The owner of the alternative secondary school, author John Marsden, said students were ecstatic about the idea but that some parents were concerned about their children getting home late. 

“The first period of the day is such a write-off for so many teenagers,” he said. “As a teacher, you just have a row of yawning faces. It is just like the clowns at the Melbourne Show.”   

Candlebark year 8 students Keir, Jack and Jaxon said they typically went to bed around 10.30pm, and would be checking their phones or watching YouTube videos on most school nights.

“Last night I stayed up late writing an essay but we were also messaging on our phones,” Jack said. 

Professor Olds said children were recommended to get 9 to 11 hours of sleep a night but that these guidelines did not take into account when they went to bed or the consistency of their slumber.

He said older children who went to bed late tended to be snacking on junk food or transfixed by bright screens, which affected their sleep. The knock-on effect of late nights meant they got up later, potentially missing out on breakfast or opportunities for exercise, he said.

But other factors also played a part in sleep patterns, and he noted that children from dysfunctional households would not have strict bedtimes imposed on them. Issues with poor sleep and poor health were a “chicken and egg problem”, he said.

Professor Olds, who analysed survey data of more than 2000 children aged between nine and 16, said a change to school starting times would work best for teenagers in their final years of secondary schooling.

His findings on late sleepers were echoed in separate research from Melbourne’s Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, which found children aged between four and nine who went to bed earlier were healthier than those who stayed up later.

“Regardless of what time they woke up, the ones who went to bed later had poorer relationships with their friends, poorer moods and their school function was poorer,” lead researcher Jon Quach​ said.

He said his research, based on health survey data of about 3000 families, showed the parents of kids who went to bed later also exhibited worse mental health.

Both studies were based on data from the middle of last decade, and since then new technologies and the rise of social media have put additional pressures on children’s sleep habits.

Professor Olds said parents had much more trouble policing bedtimes if their children used smartphones or tablets to watch TV, play video games and remain in contact with friends.

Their research was presented at the Australasian Sleep Association’s annual conference in Melbourne on Thursday.

Conference chairwoman Sarah Biggs said sleep was an important area of health that was often ignored or not taken as seriously as diet or exercise.

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