As sleep deprivation continues to negatively impact the health and well-being of adolescents in the United States, the American Medical Association (AMA) adopted policy during its Annual Meeting to encourage reasonable school start times that allow students to get sufficient sleep. The new policy specifically calls on school districts across the United States to implement middle and high school start times no earlier than 8:30 AM. The new policy also encourages physicians to actively educate parents, school administrators, teachers, and other community members about the importance of sleep for adolescent mental and physical health based on their proven biological needs.

“Sleep deprivation is a growing public health issue affecting our nation’s adolescents, putting them at risk for mental, physical and emotional distress and disorders,” says AMA board member William E. Kobler, MD, in a release. “Scientific evidence strongly suggests that allowing adolescents more time for sleep at the appropriate hours results in improvements in health, academic performance, behavior, and general well-being. We believe delaying school start times will help ensure middle and high school students get enough sleep, and that it will improve the overall mental and physical health of our nation’s young people.”

According to recent studies, only 32% of American teenagers reported getting at least eight hours of sleep on an average school night. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that teenagers between 14 and 17 years of age should get 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep per night to achieve optimal health and learning. Studies have also shown that puberty is accompanied by a biological delay or shift in circadian rhythm, contributing to later bedtimes and wake times among teens.

Over the past several decades, school start times have become increasingly early as school districts try to make time for additional classes, sports, and extracurricular activities. Nearly 10% of US high schools today begin at or before 7:30 AM. However, research has found that not allowing more time for sleep hinders health, academic performance, behavior, and general well-being. Mental manifestations of inadequate sleep often include poor memory performance and mood disorders. Symptoms of depression and anxiety are also more evident with those who get less than six hours of sleep each night.

Sleep is also essential for healthy physical development. Studies have found that sleep deprivation may result in hypertension, metabolic disorders (including diabetes), and impaired immune function. Additionally, unhealthy body mass index is directly related to sleep, and those with shorter sleep durations are more likely to be underweight, overweight, or obese.

“While implementing a delayed school start time can be an emotional and potentially stressful issue for school districts, families, and members of the community, the health benefits for adolescents far outweigh any potential negative consequences,” says Kobler.