Daylight Saving Time Is Not the Enemy

Do you hate losing an hour of sleep this weekend? Blame Standard Time.

A clock sitting in a field, in the sunlight.
If you’re going to complain, get it right.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Wavetop/iStock/Getty Image Plus.

Twice a year, Americans come together to complain about time. In November, we set our clocks back and complain that we will now have to suffer shorter days, facing the gloom of an afternoon sunset. In March, we set our clocks forward and complain about a lost hour of sleep, as well as darker mornings when we wake up. These gripes are all perfectly fair. What is unjust, however, is the unlikely scapegoat for these grievances: Daylight Saving Time. Many Americans have come to blame DST for their clock- and sunset-based woes. If you are one of them, I am here to tell you that you are dangerously mistaken.

Let’s begin with a review of terms that everyone should know but hardly anybody does. When we “spring forward” this weekend, we will be entering DST—the period between March and November when the sun sets later in the day. When we “fall back” in November, we will enter Standard Time—the period between November and March when the sun sets earlier.

Our collective failure to grasp this basic terminology has led to a lot of confusion. Every November, countless Americans condemn DST because they conflate it with Standard Time. They think that the dreaded winter months of early sunsets and seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, are the fault of DST. I understand why: It is not obvious why daylight is “saved” when it is backloaded toward the end of the day. The terms are ambiguous, which leads would-be critics of Standard Time to unleash their anguish on their true ally, DST.

To see how widespread this misapprehension is, look at coverage of California’s Proposition 7, which easily passed in 2018. The Los Angeles Times described the measure as “ending daylight saving time”; CBS called it “the first step of abolishing” DST. That is incorrect, as these outlets would’ve known if they’d read the proposition, which is titled the Permanent Daylight Saving Time Measure. As that name indicates, the measure permits the state Legislature to implement year-round DST by a two-thirds vote after obtaining federal approval. The media’s inability to articulate the proposition’s purpose may have led to voter bewilderment, as illustrated in the CBS article, which features a California resident who asserts: “I don’t like Daylight Saving Time. It disrupts me every fall.” Given that DST begins in the spring, this Californian probably meant to assail Standard Time but inadvertently contributed to anti-DST fervor.

I have no doubt that some Americans legitimately dislike DST—not just the change of clocks, but the redistribution of sunlight from morning to afternoon. The best defense of this position is that DST may require children to go to school in the dark. That is true, but the issue here isn’t DST: It’s America’s outrageous school schedule. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared that most schools start too early, contributing to poor health in adolescents. Earlier school start times are linked to depression and anxiety in teenagers, as well as chronic sleep deprivation. Early start times also disadvantage young students, lowering their academic performance. It is absurd to blame DST on a problem created by the American school system. If more schools took the American Academy of Pediatrics’ advice and refused to start class before 8:30 a.m., DST would pose no impediment to schoolchildren.

For the record, I am not a defender of our current system. It is irritating to reset clocks—especially those embedded in household appliances, whose cryptic instructions seem designed to thwart our puny human desire to know what time it is. And it may be perilous to lose an hour of sleep: Deadly car crashes, heart attacks, and workplace injuries all appear to increase after we “spring forward.” But the solution is not to end DST; it is to extend DST year-round. (There may be other benefits, including reduced crime, though it doesn’t seem to reduce energy usage.) California had the right idea by passing Proposition 7. So did many of the 73,781 people who signed this petition to end DST—but wrote comments demonstrating that they really want to abolish Standard Time. (“I own a child care, every year we have children crying because, ‘it’s getting dark and mommy or daddy have not picked me up yet.’ ” Blame Standard Time, kids!)

I’ll admit that I am no impartial observer here. I suffer from SAD and spiral into fatigue and distress every winter unless I plant myself under a sunlamp and trick my brain into thinking we’re back in Florida. (Incidentally, my home state has passed a bill to implement permanent DST pending federal approval, the only good piece of legislation to emerge from Tallahassee so far this century.) I feel pathetic crawling under the sunlamp just to feel like a normal human, and I blame Standard Time. Yes, winter will always be unpleasant for those of us who are not vampires. But Standard Time amplifies the pain by ushering in nighttime halfway through the afternoon. I can stomach D.C. sunsets around 6 p.m. for a few weeks. But total darkness at 4:49 p.m.? Kill me. I’d rather take my chances among Florida’s sun-loving, gun-toting baby boomers.

I am convinced that a majority of America would be with me on the clock question if they could master the distinction between DST and Standard Time. Our inability to hold Standard Time responsible for the crime of early sunsets has polluted the conversation to the point that even Ellen DeGeneres has it twisted. This weekend, please direct your complaints at Standard Time, and don’t fault DST for giving us eight months of sunshine. Embrace it. And when soul-crushing afternoon darkness returns in November, remember who the real enemies are: Standard Time and all the misguided fools who seek to expand its tyranny.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.