Tuesday, September 09, 2014
More on lazy teenagers and whether schools should coddle them
Of course, I agree with Rosemond: The reason teenagers don't like to get up early in the morning is because they like to stay up late at night, an observation that doesn't take a great deal of research to justify the inferemce and does not involve any particularly complex chain of reasoning. I've been a teenager, raised four children, each of whom went through a mercifully short phase of teenagerism, and know many people who have them or have had them.
They would all testify to this phenomenon: teenagers like to stay up late.
There are a number of reasons for this. Rosemond gives one: the ease of electronic communication, which teenagers take full advantage of through computers and texting. I would only add that they are also lazy, non-compliant, and rebellious, which may have something to do with it too.
But these common sense observations are in plain sight of most everybody with a teenager are just not enough for some people. Instead, we have to resort to "science," so-called. An explanation is just not considered legitimate unless it has the backing of someone who wears a laboratory smock.
The expression "research shows" has to be the most abused expression in the English language. Everyone uses it almost like a magical incantation. Few people actually read the research. If they do anything at all, they read the executive summary. Even fewer people look at the studies that may militate against the conclusion of the study that supports their view.
Not only that, but what continues to amaze me is how much modern research doesn't follow basic rules of research. I'm not talking about anything fancy, mind you, just basic stuff. When you do try to scratch below the surface, what you usually find is that the "research" isn't quite as telling as it seemed at first. It either is just not representative, hasn't been replicated, is mostly anecdotal, is without adequate controls, etc., etc.
This is particularly bad in education research. I recently studied up on the research comparing phonics with whole word methodologies of teaching reading. The biggest meta-study done on the subject was by the National Reading Panel. They went and found something over 1000 studies (using several databases, so the overlap was not known). Then they weeded out all the studies that didn't meet basic research criteria (not the "basic" in that description). You know how many they were left with? Something above fifty.
Fifty. Out of about a thousand studies. This should tell us something about "research".
But most people don't think about this. They just know that if they can find a study that supports their position, they can say that their belief is "research-based." They turn their computer on, Google the term "sleep research," and find a study that concludes that teenagers are simply incapable of going to bed early. Presto. If it's on the Internet, it must be true.
It reminds me of what Andrew Lang once said about statistics: that they are used by some people like a drunk uses a lampost, "for support rather than illumination."
I have addressed before the tendency in modern thought to scientize all things. We think everything has a scientific explanation, a fact that helps us tremendously in shirking responsibility for what we do. If there is a biological explanation for our behavior, then we cannot be held responsible for the bad things we do. Our good deeds? Well, we can take credit for those, of course.
This is not to say that science is itself illegitimate, only that there is a lot of bogus science out there that gets passed around and believed by a lot of people. A real scientist should be bothered by this, although it seems as if not many of them are. But maybe I just don't get out much.
So the most interesting response to the post on Rosemond's column was this: That "research shows" that teenagers had a "biological preference" for going to bed late. One commenter cited a study showing that that the "biological preference" for teenagers going to sleep was 11:00 p.m. Not 10:53, not 11:04, but 11:00 p.m.
Funny how nature cooperates so closely with arbitrary, man-made measurement thresholds.
All this so-called "science" is employed in the effort to show that teenagers don't just want to stay up late (an easily observable phenomenon). No: They need to stay up late (an observation requiring live scientists with sophisticated measuring instruments and a degree in sleepology).
Now I haven't had the time to closely review this "research." My experience is that when I do that, I usually find numerous weaknesses that render the study advisory at best, but certainly not conclusive. I notice for example, that the study cited involved 25 teenagers. So my initial reaction is to ask whether we are really justified in changing school policies across the country on the basis of a study of 25 teenagers.
But I'm not sure that it is even necessary to further investigate the study.
I find this whole idea that people (teenagers or anyone else) have a "biological preference" for going to sleep at a certain time very suspicious. The quality of the study aside, so far no one has answered a much more obvious question I have asked here and several other places. I'll restate it:
The claim is that research has found that teenagers have a "biological preference" of going to bed [I'm going to assume Singring's figure, since he's a scientist] at 11:00 p.m. The question is, 11:00 p.m. of what time zone? Greenwich Mean Time? Eastern Standard? Pacific Standard Time? Central European Time? Irish Standard Time? Kuybyshev Time? Kyrgyzstan Time? Azores Summer Time?
Let's assume the study quoted on sleep was conducted on the east coast of the United States. Does that mean that if the same study was conducted in eastern Kazakhstan that it would have found that the optimal time for teenagers to go to sleep was 5:00 a.m. Alma-Ata Time? If so, has anyone informed the inhabitants, whose teenage children are probably trying to go to bed 7 or 8 hours earlier than their "biological preference," or that they really need to start school there at 3:30 in the afternoon?
Should school times change to match the seasons?
If this "biological preference" changes from place to place, then wouldn't it have to be tied to some environmental factors, say sunlight? And if it's tied to sunlight, then would it make a difference if you spent most of your time outside or inside? If you left lights on in your house until late? Would seasonal changes in sunset times affect your "biological preference" so that you needed to go to bed earlier in winter (at least in the northern hemisphere) and later in the summer? And would that mean that the optimal school start time should vary with the seasons--say, 9:30 in September when the sun still sets relatively late, and 7:30 in the December, when the sun sets relatively early, and then back to 9:30 or 10:00 when daylight gets a head of steam in the late spring?
And how come all this talk about "circadian rhythms" (I personally have never been to Circadia, but I'm thinking it must be a happnin' place, what with everyone staying up into all hours of the night and all) and their relation to sunlight concentrates solely on the time the sun sets, biologically forcing people to go to bed late because the sun sets late, and seems to ignore the countervailing consideration that when the sun is setting late, it is also rising early, and should therefore have the opposite effect of biologically forcing people to get up early?
In short, I'm not only interested about exactly how "biological" this sleep time preference is, but with the assumptions employed in these studies and in the discussion about them.
There's just something very squirrely about the whole way this is being thought about.