“Sometimes the texts make sense, other times it’s just random letters,” said Hall, a senior at the Perpich Center Arts High School in Golden Valley, Minn. and one of a small but growing number of cellphone users who say they sometimes sleep-text — the latest twist on sleepwalking or talking in one’s sleep.
Here’s how sleep experts say it happens: A chronic texter, often a teen, leaves the cellphone on the nightstand to use as an alarm clock. The light and occasional noises of the phone disrupt deep sleep. Sometime during the night, in light sleep or grogginess, the teen instinctively reaches for the phone and starts texting. Sometimes they text gibberish, sometimes actual words. In the morning, they don’t remember doing it.
Most of these nonsense texts can be laughed off between friends or family members. But it concerns doctors for two reasons: It’s yet another way that technology is disrupting needed sleep, and it’s more public than sleep talking or walking, so it’s potentially embarrassing — or worse, said Dr. Conrad Iber, who heads the sleep medicine program at the University of Minnesota.
“You wouldn’t want to sleep-text your boss,” he said.
Evidence of the phenomenon so far is coming anecdotally from sleep medicine experts whose patients are reporting it. It seems to show up most in teens and college students, a third of whom send at least 100 texts a day during their waking hours, according to a 2010 Pew Research Center survey. But doctors are also starting to see sleep-texting concerns in adult patients.
“Texting has really taken off over the last few years. It’s now an ongoing behavior, an ingrained behavior, like eating or driving,” said Dr. Ronald Kramer, a Colorado neurologist with the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the professional association of the 8,500 sleep-disorder researchers and specialists around the country. “It stands to reason there would begin to be a sleepwalking parallel. When you’re in la-la land stuck between sleep and waking, you might automatically grab your phone and when the light comes on that’s your cue to do something.”
Sleep-texters can do themselves real social or professional damage, said Kramer, who has about a dozen patients who have become concerned about sleep-texting. They worry about unwittingly sending a random message to the wrong person that might be taken at face value, he said.
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