KOKOMO — Jenna Zollner will wake before the sun rises on her first school day following spring break, likely rushing out the door without breakfast to beat a 7:30 a.m. tardy bell.

Zollner, a 17-year-old senior at Kokomo High School who gets up around 6:30 a.m. on school days, often falls asleep between midnight and 1 a.m., she said, relying on five-and-a-half to six hours of sleep to get through a weekday.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends teenagers from 13 to 18 years old should regularly sleep 8 to 10 hours per day.

Zollner’s schedule is far from uncommon for today’s teenagers.

“Yes, it is a struggle,” she said. “I definitely go to school tired every day.”

The bedtime, noted Zollner, is based on when she gets tired, a claim experts say is backed up by the biological behavior trends seen in teenagers.

“I would say that being tired affects me mostly because I struggle to focus during class or sometimes I spend most of my time trying to stay awake rather than paying attention to the lesson,” said Zollner, who rarely has time to eat breakfast.

“If I was well-rested that wouldn’t be a problem.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found in a 2015 study that 57 percent of middle school students did not get enough sleep on school nights, while 70 percent of high school students were sleep deprived.

Adolescents who don’t get enough sleep, notes the CDC, are more likely to be overweight; not engage in daily physical activity; suffer from symptoms of depression; engage in unhealthy risk behaviors like drinking, smoking and using illicit drugs; and perform poorly in school.

Because of biological rhythms, say experts, teens become tired later at night than adults, requiring them to sleep later into the morning for a good night’s rest.

It’s an issue, said Eric O’Banion, a pediatrician at the North Central Indiana Pediatric Center, that can play a big role in a teen’s life and their ability to learn.

The biological reason behind teenagers’ late nights, he noted, involved a delay in the melatonin being secreted by an adolescent’s brain, causing them to shift from being a morning person to an evening-centric person.

“The melatonin … changes, it starts to shift later in the day,” explained O’Banion. “As you get older into adolescence, it starts to go later.”

In conjunction, the biological sleep drive changes in teenagers, taking them longer to fall asleep.

“They stay up later, they get up earlier and they’re just sort of chronically sleep-deprived,” he noted.

With an appropriate amount of sleep, “your attention is better, your grades are better, your behavior is better, from an allaround point of view, life just gets better for the kid,” said O’Banion.

Critics of moving school start times later into the morning have said the change would just cause teenagers to stay up later than they already do. But O’Banion said the argument is not accurate.

“The kids actually still go to sleep when they’re supposed to go to sleep,” he explained. O’Banion also referenced a study that showed teenagers and parents overestimate how much sleep the student actually receives each night, a misconception that can affect opinions about school start times.

“The problem is … we get into this mentality that, ‘We did it this way, so it’s got to be this way,’ even though it might not be the correct way,” he said.

“It’s kind of similar to car seats. ‘Well, we didn’t have car seats, so we don’t really need them.’ And then all of a sudden it’s like, well, yeah, we do need car seats. … I think part of this also is that there is a lot of pushback against science. People don’t want to hear, ‘Here’s what the science shows, and this is important.’” But teenagers aren’t totally without blame.

Often, adolescents have bad sleep habits, staying up late into the night with a phone inches from their face, which activates the brain, or sitting in a dark room with a big-screen TV blaring the latest binge-worthy show.

It’s important, said O’Banion, to kill those trends and instead establish a regular routine that includes all seven days of the week and involves a wind-down pattern of dimming lights and eliminating screens at least an hour before bedtime.

“We may have 21st century brains, but we have 10th century B.C. bodies,” he said. “And no matter what your brain wants to do, you have to bring your body along with it. You gotta put your body to sleep.

“I think we’re shortchanging this part of our life that is a third of our life,” added O’Banion. “And if you’re not doing well with a third of your life, it’s going to impact the other two-thirds of your life.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that middle and high schools delay start times to 8:30 a.m. or later to “align school schedules to the biological sleep rhythms of adolescents, whose sleep-wake cycles begin to shift up to two hours later at the start of puberty.”

A 2014 School Health Policies and Practices Study, however, found that 93 percent of high schools and 83 percent of middle schools in the U.S. started before 8:30 a.m.

In KHS senior Zollner’s opinion, a 9 a.m. start time would be fair and allow students to be rested for school.

It would be, she said, a better situation for herself and her friends and classmates, who “definitely” struggle with similar problems.

“It’s most present in high school, probably because that’s when your workload increases the most and you have the most activities. High school takes more energy than elementary or middle school,” said Zollner.

Sleep deprivation, she said, is a regular topic of conversation at KHS, more often with students than teachers.

“I think some teachers do have sympathy, but not all,” she said. “It gets talked about a lot but nothing has been done to change it.”

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