Healthy World, Healthy Nation, Healthy You

Sleep Texting: The health consequences of a new phenomenon among young adults that contributes to sleep deprivation

Elizabeth Burgess Dowdell, PhD, RN, FAAN
Professor, Villanova University College of Nursing


elizabeth-dowdellElizabeth Burgess Dowdell, a Professor of Pediatric Nursing at Villanova University, has made major contributions quantifying the health risks facing vulnerable children and providing leadership to vital, compelling issues in child health.

Not only has she made innovative insights investigating infant abductions, writing policies for hospital safety of newborns, and studying children raised by grandparents, but she has been a pioneering nurse scientist identifying the interrelationships among various forms of electronic aggression, including “cyber-bullying” and “sexting” in addition to the new phenomena of “sleep texting.”

Dr. Dowdell incorporates nursing information into the larger pool of interdisciplinary research by updating the profile of high-risk youth and highlighting the significance of the interrelationships among physical, sexual, and emotional factors and electronic aggression when on the Internet.  Her research has led to new strategies for risk profiling and understanding the perilous behaviors of children and adolescents associated with the Internet, smart phones, and social media.

Her current Department of Justice grant advances the science of children’s risk behaviors by providing professionals with resources to assess risk, educate children and parents, and plan future intervention studies to minimize risk. Her program of research promotes Internet child safety across the lifespan thereby contributing to evidence-based practice outcomes.

Dr. Dowdell’s academic degrees include a BSN from Vanderbilt University, MS from Boston College, and PhD from University of Pennsylvania.


Texting on a cell phone may not stop at bedtime and a new phenomena known as “sleep texting” is emerging as a growing trend among young adults.  Sleep texting occurs when an individual responds to or sends a text message electronically while in a sleep state.  The beep or buzz of the cell phone indicating that a call has come in awakens the sleeper, who instinctively reaches over and responds to the message. This action can occur once or multiple times during the sleep cycle, adversely affecting the quality and the duration of the individual’s sleep.

 Communicating during sleep is not an uncommon event. Many persons acknowledge that they talk in their sleep, walk in their sleep, eat in their sleep, or have answered phone calls on their landlines in their sleep with little recollection of having done so the following day.

A qualitative study with college students was developed to explore the frequency and duration of cell phone use during sleep.  College students were surveyed about their sleep quality and technology use.  Of the 372 total sample, 75% females (n=281) and 25% males (n=91), a quarter of the sample (25.6%) reported they are sleep texting with more girls (86%) reporting the behavior. Students that sleep text were more likely to report sleep interruption, to place their phone in bed with them, have no memory of texting (72%) or what they texted (25%).  Girls had higher levels of poor sleep quality with the cell phone influencing their sleep.

Too little sleep over time leads to individuals becoming drowsy and unable to concentrate the next day in addition to reports of impaired memory and physical performance.The action of sleep texting, viewed independently, suggests that the messages being sent are more embarrassing than dangerous.  It is important to note that these postings are made by older adolescents or college students, almost all of whom are most likely not currently members of the work world interacting with clients, bosses, administration, or fellow employees.

Sleep texting amongst the working population may result in a different experience and a different set of consequences based on what was texted-and to whom when viewed through a professional work lens.


In the current study some students shared their views of sleep texting and some unique strategies to prevent sleep texting.  For example, one student shared that her roommate wore mittens to bed every night, she asked her roommate about the mittens and was told about sleep texting.  The student had always thought the girl’s hands were cold at night and that was why she wore the mittens since “it never occurred to me that she was sleep texting!”  Another student shared, “I do sleep text sometimes, but I also dream about sleep texting and that’s when I check my history. But, it’s weird to dream of it and not do it and then not dream of sleep texting only to find out I did do it.”

3 Key Points:

  1. Sleep is increasingly recognized as important to health across the lifespan, with poor sleep quality being linked to unintentional accidents, physical ailments, psychological distress, and chronic health conditions. From a health promotion and health maintenance perspective getting enough sleep as well as quality sleep must be a priority health behavior.
  2. Sleep texting has been identified as a new phenomenon among adolescents, college students, and young adults. It is a behavior that has the potential to interrupt sleep and diminish sleep quality.
  3. Healthy sleep habits such as regular bedtimes and wake times, in addition to avoidance of screen-related media in the bedroom an hour before bedtime should be discussed with adolescents and young adults. Understanding sleep texting can help individuals who experience the phenomena to identify poor sleep quality as well as behaviors or problems associated with lack of sleep thereby helping to promote normal sleep patterns.


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