We’ve all heard of sleepwalking, something that is most common in children between about ages three to thirteen. Typically, children are expected to grow out of it by their teenage years and it’s more or less looked at as a harmless thing that results in the occasional odd behavior in the middle of the night. In the absolute most extreme cases, people can hurt themselves significantly, jumping out of windows or even roaming out of their homes unattended. And occasionally, sleepwalking occurs for adults, although it's not as common and still not considered to be exceptionally dangerous.
According to the Mayo Clinic, a person who is sleepwalking will often do routine activities such as getting dressed, talking or eating, leave the house, drive a car, engage in unusual behavior, such as urinating in a closet, engage in sexual activity without awareness, get injured, for example, by falling down the stairs or jumping out a window, become violent during the period of brief confusion immediately after waking or, occasionally, during sleepwalking, and now, according to new research, send text messages with their cell phone.
Researchers from Villanova University recently published their work in the Journal of American College Health following a study on sleep quality and cellphone use. They surveyed 372 students at two separate universities in 2013 on their cell phone use while sleeping and sleep quality, asking things like how many hours they typically sleep at night and where they keep their cellphone during that time, among other things.
Their findings were odd, to say the least. More than one-quarter of the people surveyed said they texted in their sleep, and of that group, 72 percent didn’t remember actually doing so until seeing their phone the next day. The people who did find themselves sleep texting were both found to also say they typically got uninterrupted sleep as well as keeping their phone in bed with them each night. And the study concluded with the statement that this problem is actually specific to college students, a growing trend that is having an influence on poor sleep habits.
Remember how the study found that 72 percent of people didn’t actually remember sleep texting? Well, it turns out the 27 percent or so who were aware of this habit of theirs, some made regular efforts to try and keep themselves from texting in their sleep. The survey included open-ended questions that would allow students to elaborate on these things, where researchers learned of people doing things like sleeping while wearing mittens so they couldn’t text.
As it turns out, most people’s sleep texts are complete gibberish. Scrolling through social media, #sleeptexting is a trending topic where people share stories and screen grabs of some of their sleep texts and a common thread between them is what usually either looks like a jumble of random letters or properly spelled words coming together to make completely incoherent sentences and thoughts.
Elizabeth Dowdell, the lead author of the Villanova study, noticed that many of her students were talking about the phenomenon when she decided to look into it. “The majority were unwilling to turn off their phone at night,” she says. “Some students even said that the behavior started in high school.” She added that most of the students sleep texting were women and they often had a habit of checking their phone first thing in the morning to see if they’d sent any messages throughout the night.
“There are probably a couple of things going on with people who text in their sleep,” says board-certified sleep medicine researcher and neurologist W. Christopher Winter, MD, of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine and author of the book The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It. “A small percentage of these people probably have a parasomnia, which is an abnormal wakening during deep sleep. But instead of walking or eating things they don’t remember, they’re texting.”
Winter adds that this isn’t exactly behavior that’s as odd as it may sound. You’d probably be less surprised to hear stories of people waking in the middle of the night and having conversations with their significant others. Sometimes they’re clear and coherent conversations and other times they’re a simple a slurring of words. White sees sleep texting as the same thing, just adapted to modern technology. “We can have automatic behavior,” he says. “That’s why you can have a conversation with your partner in the middle of the night, not remember the first part, and wake up when you’re already into the conversation. Alcohol can absolutely influence both behaviors and having that sort of amnesia for what you’re doing,”
So what’s the solution to stop sleep texting? According to Winter, it’s the most obvious thing, actually. Don’t sleep with your phone in your bed, as many people do nowadays. At the very least, sleeping with your phone out of reach and potentially completely out of your proximity throughout the night should be enough to keep a person from thumbing out a few embarrassing messages, and the reason it’s become a phenomenon large enough for a college professor like Elizabeth Dowdell to notice is because some people won’t even consider the option. If that’s the case there are always mobile apps that can lock your phone and require the user to do math problems in order to unlock it at certain hours. Or, Winter says keeping your phone on silent is also another viable technique, as you’re less likely to be woken up by an incoming call or message and respond unknowingly.
“Who controls technology? We control it. We’re the ones who turn it on and we’re the ones who turn it off,” adds Dowdell. “If you can’t turn it off, consider putting some boundaries around it like sleep mode or program it so that only certain people can text through at night. Also, don’t sleep with your phone in bed.”