Casey Vandeventer did not mean to text the name of her dead father to a friend. In fact, she wasn’t even conscious when it happened.
No, this isn’t the beginning of a ghost story and Vandeventer, 31, wasn’t possessed. She was sleeptexting, and she’s not alone, according to researchers like Dr. Michael Gelb, a clinical professor at New York University’s College of Dentistry and founder of The Gelb Center in New York.
“The line is blurring between wakefulness and sleep,” Gelb explains. “So, you’ll be texting one second and the next second you’re asleep, but then you get a ping and the ping awakens you. It’s becoming more of a trend because the line is really being blurred between being awake and being asleep.”
Sleeptexting is a growing phenomenon in which people (usually adolescents and young adults) send text messages while asleep. Gelb says it’s being classified as a parasomnia, putting it in the same class of sleep disorders as sleepwalking, night terrors, and bedwetting. For many sleeptexters, the disorder is just as embarrassing as any of the above, especially when the recipient is anyone other than a trusted friend or family member. Alex Thielen, 22, is one of many sleeptexters to regret the recipient as much as the message. In her case, an ex-boyfriend was on the receiving end of her unconscious text.
After months without contact, Thielen’s ex-boyfriend reached out to her, but then abruptly ended their conversation. She sent one final message and tried to wait up for a response, but ended up falling asleep before he answered her. The next morning, she awoke to two new messages: One from him and one from her—asking him to meet up.
“I never wanted to see him, and still don't, but I think subconsciously, I still partially do, so my subconscious loved the idea,” Thielen explains. “I woke up and was embarrassed to tell my friends and mom because deep down, I knew it was a bad idea. I was upset with myself for making it known that I wanted to see him.”
Oftentimes, sleeptexts are jumbled or full of misspellings—not surprising given the authors’ state. This was the case for sleeptexter Geo Santistevan, 26, who sent a garbled message to a potential love interest.
“I left my phone near my bed before heading to bed. Then, when I woke up, I had sent a text that I don’t remember writing. The words were real words, just misspelled badly,” he explains.
Many sleeptexters report feelings of embarrassment the morning after. Thielen says she immediately retracted her sleep-induced invitation and Santistevan apologized for his message right away as well, even though in his case, the recipient laughed the message off.
Vandeventer was initially embarrassed by her sleeptext, which was in a different realm than inviting a past or present love interest to hang out. She reports texting the name of her dead father to a friend who also happened to be a professional therapist. Although she was initially embarrassed, she found a silver lining in her experience.
“I woke up with the phone in my hands, still in text position,” she recalls. “I felt a little embarrassed at first, wondering how I would explain this to my friend, but after that initial feeling, I felt extremely comfortable knowing that my subconscious will always remember the important things. It gave me a sense of comfort, somewhat. Not the texting in particular, but that feelings about my father, whom I missed very much, had transitioned over into the digital world, something he wasn't alive to see.”
While sleeptexting can certainly lead to some awkward or embarrassing conversations, there’s a deeper problem for sufferers. Typically, sleeptexting occurs in the two hours after a person falls asleep, putting it in a prime position to interrupt important REM sleep, and inhibiting the much-needed restorative sleep that replenishes the brain after a long day, Gelb says. Moreover, lack of sleep has been linked to a number of health issues, including obesity, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Gelb also says incidents of sleeptexting can increase for those taking some medications, ironically including sleep aids like Ambien.
“Ambien makes it worse because then you’re out of it. It’s amnesia. You don’t even really remember what you did while you’re on Ambien,” he says.
Gelb suggests that factors like what a person had to drink, their stress level, or quality of sleep leading up to the incident might impact the likelihood of sending a sleeptext, though research into the matter is too new to say for sure. Gelb and his colleagues are studying the effects of sleeptexting, particularly on children and young adults, but he says it’s too soon to say if the disorder is more than a passing trend. Thielen reports a combination of external factors that she believes may have contributed to her sleeptext.
“It happened about one month into starting my first full-time job, so you could say I was very stressed out. I was still getting used to my sleep schedule because I wasn't used to getting up early every day for work. That night in particular, I was very stressed out and had friends over give me advice...but of course we ended up drinking more wine than we should have,” she says. “So, I was definitely stressed, anxious, and a little intoxicated when I sleeptexted.”
Although some sleeptexting may be the result of medication or other factors, for most sleeptexters, treatment is a matter of lifestyle choices. Gelb recommends shutting down all electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bed to give the brain time to wind down. It also helps if you don’t fall asleep with your phone close by—a surefire way to curb sleeptexting.
That’s easier said than done, however, for most sleeptexters. The disorder disproportionally affects teens and young adults, Gelb says. This trend is based more on generation than on age, however.
“It’s impacting teens and young adults, because they’re pretty much attached to the phone like an appendage. The younger generation grew up with texting and with Facebook and they’re checking their phones every two minutes during the day,” Gelb explains. “It’s just a part of their lives. This is all they know, this is what they grew up with.”
As this generation ages, however, Gelb predicts sleeptexting will follow at least some of them. The disorder itself is not necessarily one people will grow out of, but they may grow out of some of the behaviors that contribute to it, like over-stimulating themselves with technology, particularly before bed.
Vandeventer’s therapist friend agreed with Gelb, prescribing the same treatment for her sleeptexting going forward. “The person I texted thought it was crazy—but in a good way,” Vandeventer explains. “She did advise me to maybe not keep my phone that close when I slept, for fear that a more harmful sleeptext might escape.”