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[Kim Hoo-ran] Let our teens get their sleep

It is a familiar sight: groups of high school students walking to school, half-dazed. They look lethargic although the day has just begun ― they most likely had little sleep and no breakfast in their rush to get to school on time.

The scene is not surprising when we look at how much sleep our children are getting. According to recent Seoul Metropolitan Government statistics, 
high school students in Seoul get about 5 1/2 hours of sleep each night, going to bed around 1 a.m. and waking up at 6:30 a.m. More than 97 percent of Seoul high school students said they slept less than eight hours a day while 27.4 percent said they got less than five hours of sleep.

Compare that figure to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation that adolescents get 8 1/2 to 9 1/2 hours of sleep per night. There is no question that our youngsters are terribly sleep deprived, falling short of the recommended amount of sleep by three whole hours.

Studies link sleep deprivation in adolescents with a variety of problems. Lack of sleep impairs alertness, attention, problem-solving and the ability to retain information, affecting students’ ability to learn at school. Sleep deprivation also affects how youngsters cope with stress and is known to lead to poor impulse control and to violence. Adolescents who do not get sufficient sleep also suffer from health problems, and impaired cognitive function and decision-making, according to the U.S.-based National Sleep Foundation.

You may ask, “Why don’t the teenagers go to bed earlier so that they get the required Zs?” Studies show that adolescents have a sleep phase delay ― a tendency to fall asleep and wake up later. A typical teenager’s natural time to fall asleep may be 11 p.m. or later, leading to sleep deprivation among teenagers who must wake up early for school.

Since adolescent sleep deprivation is caused by a conflict between teenagers’ biological clocks and the schedules and demands of society, sleep deprivation should be part of the discussions that are being held in the wake of Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education Superintendent Cho Hee-yeon’s recent announcement that the school starting time may be pushed back to 9 a.m.

The move for starting school later began in Gyeonggi Province, where the education authorities implemented the 9 a.m. starting time in September. North Jeolla Province last month recommended that schools push back the starting time by 30 minutes and there are now discussions around the country about the later starting time.

Resistance to change is expected, especially when that change has wide-ranging implications. Many opposed to schools starting later point out that children whose parents both work will be left at home on their own until school starts. Some argue that the later starting time means a later dismissal time, reducing the amount of time that the students can study at cram schools. Difficulties in arranging school transportation have also been raised.

Curiously, the arguments that are being made against schools starting later revolve around the inconveniences for adults.

If we hold the students’ interests as the highest priority, it should be clear that starting school later makes good sense. A recent survey that looked into Korean youngsters’ life satisfaction revealed unhappy, stressed and suicidal children and adolescents. In fact, Korea has the highest adolescent suicide rate ― the rate for last year was 29.1 per 100,000 ― among OECD countries. The fact that sleep deprivation is also linked to suicide should be considered in our discussions about the school starting time.

Parents preoccupied with their children’s academic performance must realize that sleep deprivation is detrimental to school performance. They ought to focus on the quality of school education rather than fretting about less time to attend cram schools. If students are more alert and attentive at school, they stand to maximize their learning opportunities. This may even lessen the reliance on cram schools.

Many issues should be addressed before Seoul schools implement the 9 a.m. starting time in March. How to care for children between the time their parents leave for work and when school starts is a crucial issue. A possible option is to open schools at the current hour for children who would otherwise be left alone at home, making breakfast available if possible, and offering a supervised self-study period.

A haphazard implementation of the new school starting time would result in much inconvenience and confusion. Pyeongtaek in Gyeonggi Province, for example, will make changes to the city bus schedules this month as students and commuters have complained about crowded buses since the school starting time changed.

The discussion and preparation for changing the school starting time should involve students, teachers, parents and the larger community. If the March deadline is too rushed, education authorities should be open to delaying the change. In all of this, students should be the top priority.

By Kim Hoo-ran

The writer is an editorial writer at The Korea Herald. She can be reached at ― Ed.