(I can and did. I asked her how the night teens in her study were getting as much sleep as the morning teens if the school started at 7:20. She said, “We controlled for all these variables.”)
The point, Owens emphasizes is that many kids “are biologically programmed to wake up around 8:00 or 9:00. By that point, they’ve been in school for two hours. That’s where this brings up the issue of school start times.”
In 2014, she was the lead author of a statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics that implored high schools and middle schools to start no earlier than 8:30.
“Part of the reason behind that was to make sure kids get enough sleep,” she told me. “But it was also to align their school schedules with their biological rhythms.”
So these research findings support her mission nicely.
Since that recommendation, many schools have pushed back their start time. She travels the country giving talks about this: “This isn’t just about school performance; it’s about the health of our kids.”
I don’t know which most parents care about most. But this point, why wouldn’t all schools just change their start times?
“Oh!” she said with a gasp. “There are myriad reasons! Honestly, the biggest one is sports. Practice will be delayed. If you’re playing a team from another district with an earlier start time, that gets screwed up. Some teachers have second jobs and need to get out there. And people like the status quo. Change is hard.”
I told Owens I was on the swim team in high school. We had two practices a day, and the first started at 5:30 in the morning. I said I wonder if I would be smarter now if I hadn’t done that.
She withheld judgment. “It’s crazy.”
After Owens completed the research in Virginia, she was involved in getting the school system to change its start time—which is now 8:10. She’s in the process of studying how that change is going.
But what if I’m a parent with a child whose school starts early, I asked her, and this kid seems to be a night child, what can I do besides lobby the school to adapt to my night child?
At this point, she said that chronotypes are at least somewhat malleable, a sort of Hobbesian understanding of our agency in sleep. She recommends keeping kids off screens when bedtime is nearing. She also recommends not letting your teenager sleep in on weekends. (A super easy and fun thing for a parent.) “That has been shown to delay their circadian rhythms even further,” she said, creating social jet lag.
In his book Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You're So Tired, chronobiologist Till Roenneberg painted a more daunting picture. He posited evolutionary explanations for modern chronotypes, like that morning people had an advantage in agrarian societies. He went on to tie chronotypes to why birth rates vary with time of year, and even why older men often marry younger women.