Wake up call: Sleep deprivation is a public health issue

  • Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Sep 22, 2015 02:39 IST

One of the more exasperating arts of parenting is that of persuading children to sleep, particularly if they happen to be teenagers. Children have higher energy levels that do not get depleted as they do in adults, and they are growing up with unprecedented visual stimuli thanks to television, smartphones and tablets — all of which make our young a very sleep-deprived generation.

It turns out that this is a grave public health risk. Doctors reckon that inadequate sleep can eventually cause anxiety, weight-gain and hypertension and have consequences for mental health as well. Neuroscientist Paul Kelley of Oxford University and his colleagues have proposed shifting school timings to make up for the 10 hours of sleep that teenagers lose each week.

They have suggested that children aged eight to 10 should start school at 830AM or later, 16-year-olds at 10 am and 18-year-olds at 11AM. In fact, Oxford University has started a four-year experiment with 30,000 pupils to see if teenagers who start school late do better in exams than those who don’t.

The results will be out only 2018, but policymakers in India may consider the case for changing school timings. If the circadian rhythms of teenagers are such that they prefer sleeping around midnight, is it wise to put them through a regime that rudely interrupts them each day, particularly when they have such competitive pressures to put up with?

This will, of course, be a logistical headache. Changed timings would force parents to change their daily routines. The repercussions on public transport in cities would be huge as schools now hire private buses that also ferry office-goers heading home from work. Delayed school timings would also be particularly punishing for school teachers as their days would be inevitably extended.

No one said it will be easy. In fact, Mr Kelley says the 9-to-5 working hours for adults also pose a serious threat to mental health and proposes changes to work timings as well. A public health crisis is evidently in the works that taxpayers will eventually pay for.

Policymakers need to debate these options now, as the world will anyway.

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