As a person whose teenage years spanned the mid-‘90s, I can remember occasionally nodding off with my coiled-cord phone cradled between my ear and shoulder after hours of conversation with a friend or crush. I’d wake up horrified, the dial tone screaming in my ear. What happened? What did I say?
The next day, my friend would regale me with a hilarious story about how I’d trailed off mid-sentence with some nonsensical garble and began snoring into the phone. We had a good laugh, but no harm no foul, because at least there was no permanent record of it, right?
Not so for today’s youth, for whom the equivalent of nodding off during a verbal phone call is a text written in their sleep. Who even knew texting while sleeping was possible?
Teens who use their phones in night in bed, can sometimes “sleep text”
But it’s very possible, and, according to a newly published study from Villanova University’s M. Louise Fitzpatrick College of Nursing, it’s not even all that uncommon. The study surveyed 372 college students and found that a quarter of them had sleep texted—texted while in a sleep state—at some point.
Of that group, 72% had no memory of the event. Respondents most likely to sleep text were, unsurprisingly, those who regularly slept with their phones in bed with them.
Although the idea of sleep texting is mildly comical, the fact that it happens with such regularity could be emblematic of larger patterns of sleep disruption. The study indicated that those who reported sleep texting also struggled with poor sleep, admitted that cell phone use impaired their sleep, and suffered from more frequent sleep interruption. The study also found that most college students do not get quality sleep during the week, and that most do not mute or turn off their cell phone when they go to sleep.
The typical human sleeps roughly one-third of their life, and healthy sleep patterns are critical to our functioning. Though our sleep requirements vary according to age, lifestyle, and health, it is common for people to report not getting the recommended allowance of sleep.
A 2011 sleep study surveyed 74,571 adults, and of those, 35.3% reported less than seven hours of sleep per night, and 37.8% reported accidentally nodding off during the day at least once in the prior month.
Young adults, and in particular college students, sleep even less than other age groups, often averaging only 6 to 7 hours of sleep per night. The demands of heavy class loads and the hectic social life of college, combined with little to no adult supervision (i.e. Mom saying, “Go to bed, sweetie, you need your sleep”) is already an environment ripe for sleep disruption.
Add to it the now-ubiquitous technology of smart phones, laptops, and tablets, and a solid night’s uninterrupted sleep sounds like a faraway dream indeed.
Sleep texting apparently happens most commonly when the individual is already asleep and their phone beeps or buzzes them into a state of partial awakeness, or at least just awake enough to respond to the notification without really having any idea what they’re saying.
In addition to being potentially embarrassing, the repeated interruptions can have a detrimental impact on the sleep of the individual, potentially leading to sleep deprivation and the accumulation of a sleep debt. Sleep debts occur even with moderate losses of sleep per night over a period of time. Every human body has an ideal number of hours it should sleep, and if it doesn’t get it, that need accumulates as a debt and will eventually have a negative impact on both physical and mental health.
Researchers did note that though the main outcome of sleep texting itself is probably simply a minor embarrassment, it should be taken into consideration that those who participated in the survey were college students, and therefore not likely to be responding to bosses or colleagues in a sleep state. Students in the practice of sleeping with their phone might consider curtailing this habit once they enter the working world.