I was interviewed last month at Wellocracy about way your body clock can work for you or against you. For most people, their schedule is working against their natural inclinations. If you are wondering how well your sleep schedule is meeting your needs, it is very easy to figure this out. On a typical day (work day or school day) do you need an alarm clock to wake up? If the answer is “no”, congratulations! You are in the minority.
If you are like me, you may hit the sleep button a few times before you blearily make your way down to the coffee maker. If you are a teenager, you are likely frantically trying to get up and out the door in time to catch the school bus or a ride to school because of the structural factors curtailing your sleep.
A German researcher, Till Roennenberg, coined the phrase “social jet lag” to describe the state of persistent sleep deprivation which results from having your external sleep schedule (e.g. when you need to get up for school or work) out of phase from your natural schedule. He actually has a survey you can take to determine your chronotype here. Brain Pickings has a great summary of his work, and he wrote a fascinating book for lay people called Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired.
As a rough rule of thumb, your degree of social jet lag is the difference between the time you need to wake up on work or school days and on free days. This can be a bit more difficult to figure out than it seems. Many teens (and adults without small children) will be sleep deprived during the week and then make up some of the sleep on the weekends. Therefore, a better comparison is between work/school days and vacation days where the teen has been allowed to sleep on his or her own schedule for several days.
Let’s take the example of a teenager who needs to get up for school at 6 AM with difficulty but arises, feeling refreshed, a month into her school vacation at 9 AM. This implies three hours of social jet lag on every school day, equivalent to the jet lag of flying from San Francisco to New York five days a week. However, unlike travelling, there is no real habituation. Being jet-lagged every day sounds pretty awful, and it is the state the majority of our teens spend every day in.
So what can be done about this:
- Going to bed earlier. You are unlikely to be able to go to sleep three hours earlier, no matter how tired you are. However, every little bit helps, and a bedtime 30 minutes earlier every night translates to 3.5 hours of extra sleep a week– almost half a night of sleep for an adult.
- Light exposures in the morning can shift your body clock earlier. Light box therapy has been proven to be helpful, and newer devices like this one from Phillips have lower light intensities than prior models
- Advocating for later school start times is critical. If you want to get involved, head to Start School Later and find out how you can advocate in your community for this issue.
For what it is worth, I took the chronotype questionnaire and found that I was actually a “slight early type” to my great surprise. I have always thought of myself as a night owl; I will say that I have become much more of a morning person by necessity since I am the parent of two small boys.
So: do you think that you have “social jet lag”? Do your children? If you took the sleep quiz, is your chronotype different than you expected?