R U Awake? Cell phone users are sending text messages while asleep
Late on a recent weeknight, Jessica Castillo fell asleep after talking with her boyfriend. The next morning, Castillo, 24, of Italy, Tex., was surprised to learn she had sent her boyfriend two multimedia text messages, apparently while asleep.
“Baby u there? Need to tell somethin ... ” read the first message before it dissolved into jibberish. “U told me and i tell u.....u harm ... ” started the second message before it, too, became incomprehensible.
Move over, sleepwalking, sleep driving, and sleep binge-eating. Increasing numbers of cell phone users are reporting on blogs and message boards that they are “sleep-texting,” text messaging friends from their cell phones while asleep. It’s a sign of the times, say sleep experts and experts on technology, who see the phenomenon a natural extension of the younger generation’s reliance on text messages for communication. But scientists and sleep professionals disagree on whether the individuals involved are technically asleep when they send the messages.
“Texting for some of the younger generation is probably as ingrained as driving is for some people,” noted Dr. Ron Kramer, a spokesman for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
Like many in the so-called “Internet generation”--born after 1979--text-messaging, or “texting,” has emerged as a major way of communicating among people under 30, according to Larry Rosen, author of a 2007 book on the subject, “Me, MySpace and I: Parenting the Net Generation.” While their parents struggle to learn the devices, this generation is fluent in using multiple communication technologies effortlessly and sometimes concurrently.
For this generation, the cell phone has become an extension of their fingers, according to Jan Van den Bulck of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium. Van den Bulck studied the effects of text messaging on sleep interruption in teenagers. Like typists who can touch type without having to make any conscious effort, teenagers don't have to think about where to find the “Q” or the “M,” he said.
Castillo's multimedia message to her boyfriend on her Pantech C300 phone involved 11 different steps, not including the typing. First, she had to select “Menu,” then “Messaging;” type “New,” then select “Multimedia message,” then punch the “Add” button and the “add text,” before entering her garbled message. Afterwards, she had to press “OK” twice, scroll to “contacts,” find the e-mail address on that contact, select it, and press “Send.”
“Not an easy process … but once you get used to it, it becomes very easy,” Castillo said.
Texting has become almost an obsession for many younger than 30, says Rosen. Along with three colleagues, Rosen conducted an anonymous survey that examined technology use among three generations, which found that the Internet generation spent an average of two hours and 20 minutes per day texting.
And late-night text-messaging is ubiquitous among teens. Nearly a quarter of teenagers in a relationship have communicated with a boyfriend or girlfriend hourly between midnight and 5 a.m. via cell phone or text messaging, according to a 2007 online survey by Teenage Research Unlimited, a youth research group. One in six communicated 10 or more times an hour through the night. Castillo, for instance, says the she and her boyfriend send between 90 and 120 text messages to each other a day.
Meanwhile, more and more of those text-obsessed individuals are sleeping next to their phones, Rosen said. “They’re not only with their cell phones most of the day,” he said. “They often sleep with it right next to them and let the vibration wake them up.” The inevitable result is that some may continue to perform the activity while unconscious.
But some sleep experts have another explanation for the sleep text messaging, particularly in those situations where the text message is coherent. Some say the messages are written while the patient is awake, but they have amnesia for the event. “The ‘sleep texter’ may have actually been awake, but had not formed new memories for the event,” says Scott Fromherz, medical director of Westside Sleep Center in Tigard, Ore.
“There is a ‘built-in’ amnesia of sleep that occurs when the brain is briefly awakened for less than three minutes,” he says.
Thus, a person might wake up in the middle of the night, text someone, go back to sleep and have no recollection of the activity the next morning.
That may be the case with James Cross. In a Jan. 30 posting titled, “All Alone: Sleep Texting,” Cross, a 28-year-old web developer from Midland, Tex., told readers of his blog (www.doubledanger.com) that he recently sent his wife a text message. He had no recollection of typing it until she reported it to him, but he did recall hearing the chime of an incoming text message as he was drifting off to sleep.
“I have always been a sleep-walker… but now a sleep-texter,” he wrote on his blog. “This can’t be good."
Cross’ inability to remember sending the message to his wife may be because the act didn’t last long enough to enter into his long-term memory, according to Dr. Kramer, of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “The brain’s ‘Enter’ key is never hit when you’re in the middle of the sleep for memory consolidation,” he said.
But Kramer doesn’t dismiss the possibility that some people could be text messaging while asleep, though the messages would likely be incoherent. People have been known to perform a variety of activities while asleep, from simply sitting up in bed to housecleaning, binge-eating or driving a car—so sleep texting may not be much of a stretch, he admitted. And as modern activities such as text-messaging become ingrained in daily life, they are more likely to pop up during sleep.
And there just may be another category of sleep-texters: people who may be embarrassed about a message they wrote and who now claim they don’t remember doing it.
“Maybe the person who sent the message regretted saying something over a text late at night,” Kramer joked, “and used ‘sleep texting’ as an excuse.”