Sleep talking is the weird nighttime habit of a bygone era. Who cares what unintelligible things people utter in the evening hours when probably only Alexa is listening? Instead, some researchers are turning their attention to sleep texting — the unconscious nighttime activity of the digital age, or at least, a great way to claim you had no idea whose DMs you were sliding into last night.
This is the plight of the sleep texter: In the middle of the night, the phone buzzes and an unsuspecting sleeper reaches over and unconsciously fires off a response that they remain completely unaware of until the next day. Anecdotes of these texts abound on Twitter, but Elizabeth Dowdell, Ph.D., a professor at Villanova’s M. Louise Fitzpatrick College of Nursing, recently published a survey in the Journal of American College Health that looked to investigate how prevalent this activity was in a sample of 372 college students. It turned out to be more common than one might expect: 25.6 percent of the college students she surveyed reported texting in their sleep, which, her analysis found, was accompanied by poor sleep quality.
While it might seem like sleep texting is somewhat similar to sleep talking, Michael Howell, M.D., a neurologist at the University of Minnesota who specializes in sleep disorders, tells Inverse that it’s actually more like sleepwalking. Sleep talking is considered a normal behavior, but sleepwalking is sometimes the product of a parasomnia (a type of sleep disorder) called a confusion arousal. People who experience this phenomenon will sometimes walk in their sleep or perform other activities when they’re transitioning from a light state of sleep to a deeper one. Sleep texting, he indicates, is an example of a confusion arousal — an automatic activity performed during that period.
“[It’s] very similar to sleepwalking as it represents a confusion arousal out of non-REM sleep,” Howell says.
This, in part, explains a secondary finding from Dowdell’s survey. She found that 72 percent of the sleep texting students didn’t remember sending their sleep texts — people don’t usually remember what happens during confusion arousal episodes either. But in terms of embarrassment, maybe this partial amnesia is a good thing because some sleep texters send pretty weird stuff — or as the study’s authors put it, “more gibberish than actual words.”
The paper pulls out a few select examples, which they gleaned from a sweep of Twitter and Tumblr. Apparently, a few of their favorites were: “Lips I dripped it,” and “I leggitt wish veggird were enough to fuelme,” or “It means Girls tonight. It I 10.”
Generally, these sleep texts are pretty funny — especially if you’re on the receiving end. But it has raised some concerns amongst sleep researchers, who suggest that they might be both indicative of poor sleep patterns and potentially more harmful than other unconscious nighttime habits. For instance, one survey found that sleep texters had a lower “sleep quality rating” overall compared to non-sleep texters. But Howell adds that the actual blue light from a phone may degrade the quality of sleep post-sleep texting episode.
“The light from the screen is more disruptive to sleep. [It] alerts an individual more than just getting up and walking around would,” he added. “In addition, the light signals to your brain that the sun has come out, disrupting your body’s 24-hour circadian rhythm.”
Whether the fleeting light from a passing push notification is enough to have this effect will have to be studied further — the survey suggests a future experimental study with a camera in a sleep lab. But sleep texting, as a phenomenon, seems to be here to stay — at least for those of us who don’t use Do Not Disturb.