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Doctor: 'Sleep Texting' is a Growing Problem

12:13 AM, Feb 15, 2012   |    comments
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GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. -- When it comes to communicating, 22-year-old Jessica Schultz holds her voice in the palm of her hand.

"I am a habitual texter," said Schultz. "I text above calling."

She uses her cell phone to text every waking hour and as it turns out even more than that.

"I'd be lying in bed bored and I would just start texting and I would fall asleep, but I would still keep texting. And I wouldn't have any recollection of these conversations," she told KARE 11.

It's called 'sleep texting' and doctors believe it's a growing phenomenon.

"We just started asking and we were rather surprised to hear how many people admitted that this has happened to them," said Dr. Mike Howell, a sleep doctor with the University of Minnesota Sleep Medicine Clinic.

He said texting while you sleep is most common among young people who are over-extended in their lives, sleeping very little, and who are so connected to their phones.

Of those youth he's treated for sleep deprivation, he believes at least half have sleep-texted.

"College is a perfect storm for this problem," said Howell.

Here's how it works: your brain essentially functions two ways, when you're awake and when you're asleep. The transition between the two typically takes only moments. But when you're sleep deprived or taking sleep medications, these two can overlap for extended periods of time.

"And in that transition period that is the period where you can have all these complicated amnesic behaviors, such as sleep texting and sleep walking," he said.

In other words, you're not asleep and you're not awake.

That's what happened to Jessica, who was on Ambien last year because she too was over-extended and having trouble sleeping.

She would text while she slept, either to her best friend Lindsey or even worse to ex-boyfriends with embarrassing texts.

"I really miss you, and I really want to kiss you right now," she said were a few of the texts. "I was so embarrassed."

And she's not the only one.

Go to any college campus, our sister station KARE went to the University of Minnesota, and you'll find many, if not the majority of students, admit to it.

"I would reply and reply nonsense. It would just be random letters. Maybe a word," said U of M student, Muaz Rushdi.

The behavior can be harmless, but sleep deprivation can lead to harmful consequences like heart problems, obesity, depression, and even worse. And then there are the cultural consequences.

"People talk about the cell phone as if it's an extension of their physical body," said Professor Carol Bruess, Ph.D.

Bruess teaches communications at the University of St. Thomas, in St. Paul.

"Are we better because of all of these highly efficient technologies? Are we better communicators?" asked Bruess. "I think the jury is still out." 

But the verdict is clear on one point. Our phones, and more specifically our busy lives, aren't just affecting our sleeping habits.

In fact, Bruess forces her students to 'unplug' from their phones and other technology for four straight days in order for them to think critically about how they communicate.

"They actually go through a couple day period where they feel physically depressed, feeling socially isolated," she said.

But after a few days, she said many feel a sense of relief.

"And they realize how they can live without being connected all the time," she added.

There is little to no research about how many people text while they sleep.

But consider this: of those teens who text, researchers report one out of three do it more than 3,000 times a month, according to a Pew Research study.

And you can bet many have texted while they slept.

"To a large degree this is related to the increase of sleep deprivation in our culture," said Howell.

So what can parents do about this?

Pretty simply, take the phone out of the room. But if your child is having trouble getting up in the morning or falling asleep in class, maybe even falling asleep while driving, it's time not to text, but call your doctor.

"There are probably more people who have done it and are embarrassed to admit it," said Schultz.

And that's in part why she is talking about it, because in this go-go world in which we live she, along with many of us, zoom right past perhaps the most important part of our day, the time we sleep.

Schultz says as soon as she stopped taking Ambien she no longer sleep texted.

Dr. Howell says on average people need about 8 ½ hours of sleep a day. He says people got that in 1960, but today people average about seven hours.

And Howell adds, if you need an alarm clock to wake up in the morning, by definition you are sleep deprived.

"There's a reason why there's a coffee shop on every corner of the industrialized world," said Howell with a smile.


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