Study: Morning People Win

Students who went to bed late got lower grades and had more emotional distress later in life.
(Alan Cleaver/flickr)

Problem: If I had my druthers, I’d go to bed at 4 a.m. and wake up at 1 p.m. every day. This is what my body wants, what it tries to revert to on every weekend and vacation. But this is not what society wants, and, as always, society wins. The struggle was even realer as a teen, when I had to wake up at 6:30 for school, or sometimes 4:30, for swim practice. And according to a 2009 study, 44 percent of students aged 12 to 18 have trouble staying awake in school. Natural morning people definitely have an edge there over those disposed to staying up late—but there might be more advantages to forcing yourself to go to sleep early than just feeling refreshed. A new study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health looks at the long-term effects of teens’ bedtimes on their academic success and emotional health.

Methodology: Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley looked at data on bedtime during the school year for 2,700 students aged 13 to 18 from The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. That study checked in with the students in 1995, 1996, and between 2001 and 2002. At the third check-in, the study personnel gathered the then-graduated participants’ school transcripts and measured their cumulative grade point averages for all the years of high school. Participants also self-reported their emotional distress, a composite measure that included things like feeling depressed, crying more than once a week, and being bothered by things they weren’t normally affected by.

Results: At both the first and second check-ins, 23 percent of participants said they went to bed at 11:15 p.m. or later during the school year. More than three-quarters of those with late bedtimes reported that they typically got less than nine hours of sleep a night.

Those with late bedtimes also had worse overall academic performance during the third check-in, demonstrated by lower GPAs. Late bedtimes during the first check-in predicted higher emotional distress later in life, but late bedtimes during the second check-in didn’t. The researchers posit that this may be explained by other research that suggests older teens are better at adapting to irregular and restricted sleep than younger teens.

Implications: Though getting to bed early seems to help teens succeed and be healthy, it’s more important, at least in the realm of emotional health, when they’re younger. This study adds to a growing body of scientific literature that suggests teens’ quality of sleep is related to their academic performance.

About 40 percent of teens prefer later bedtimes, the study says, but getting them to go against their preference could be important for health. Emotional health, as this study shows, but previous research has also shown that teens with sleep problems often have worse mental health.

The study, "The Effects of Bedtime and Sleep Duration on Academic and Emotional Outcomes in a Nationally Representative Sample of Adolescents," appeared in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

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Julie Beck is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Health Channel.

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