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Sleep-texting? It's the latest twist on sleepwalking or talking in one's sleep, and sleep experts says it's yet another -- very public -- way that technology is disrupting needed sleep

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A teenager (who is awake) composes a text message on her cell phone.

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Alice Hall is such a skillful texter that she can do it in her sleep. Only trouble is, she doesn't always remember it in the morning.

"Sometimes the texts make sense, other times it's just random letters," said Hall, a senior at the Perpich Center Arts High School in Golden Valley and one of a small but growing number of cellphone users who say they sometimes sleep-text -- the latest twist on sleepwalking or talking in one's sleep.

Here's how sleep experts say it happens: A chronic texter, often a teen, leaves the cellphone on the nightstand to use as an alarm clock. The light and occasional noises of the phone disrupt deep sleep. Sometime during the night, in light sleep or grogginess, the teen instinctively reaches for the phone and starts texting. Sometimes they text gibberish, sometimes actual words. In the morning, they don't remember doing it.

Most of these nonsense texts can be laughed off between friends or family members. But it concerns doctors for two reasons: It's yet another way that technology is disrupting needed sleep, and it's more public than sleep talking or walking, so it's potentially embarrassing -- or worse, said Dr. Conrad Iber, who heads the sleep medicine program at the University of Minnesota.

"You wouldn't want to sleep-text your boss," he said.

Evidence of the phenomenon so far is coming anecdotally from sleep medicine experts whose patients are reporting it. It seems to show up most in teens and college students, a third of whom send at least 100 texts a day during their waking hours, according to a 2010 Pew Research Center survey. But doctors are also starting to see sleep-texting concerns in adult patients.

"Texting has really taken off over the last few years. It's now an ongoing behavior, an ingrained behavior, like eating or driving," said Dr. Ronald Kramer, a Colorado neurologist with the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the professional association of the 8,500 sleep-disorder researchers and specialists around the country. "It stands to reason there would begin to be a sleepwalking parallel. When you're in la-la land stuck between sleep and waking, you might automatically grab your phone, and when the light comes on that's your cue to do something."

Sleep-texters can do themselves real social or professional damage, said Kramer, who has about a dozen patients who have become concerned about sleep-texting, most of them first mentioning it in the past year. They worry about unwittingly sending a random message to the wrong person that might be taken at face value, he said.

"You might just write gibberish, but you might write something misleading," he said. "You're documenting what you're doing in your sleep with other people [on your phone contacts list]. That's why it could be a bigger problem."

Caitlin Connery, a junior at Perpich, said she hasn't sleep-texted anything mortifying yet, but "it's a fear I have."

The busier, more stressed out and tired you are, or the more erratic your sleep schedule, the more likely you are to sleep-text, Iber said.

"Electronic devices are the enemy of sleep, and of brain function the next day," he said. "A third of the population is sleep-deprived, and even a larger percentage of teens."

Most sleep-texts are probably sent when people are in a semi-alert but groggy state, both Iber and Kramer said. How can people be awake enough to type on their phones, but not enough to know what they're writing? Because, researchers at the University of Minnesota Sleep Medicine Clinic found, the parts of the brain that control rationality and judgment don't wake up as quickly as the rest of it.

Even if you don't sleep-text, another negative side effect of leaving your phone on at night near your bed is that you may never fall into a deep sleep due to the sudden flashes of light or pinging from any texts you receive.

Tests have shown that if sleep is interrupted by a tone in the middle of the night, it causes daytime sleepiness, Iber said. "The brain is doing important work at night, consolidating memories, reinforcing what we learned that day, cleaning out unnecessary information," he said.

As the father of four teens, Iber had a rule that he'd pay the phone bill if all cellphones were deposited on the kitchen table by 11 p.m. -- a plan he acknowledges wasn't always followed to the letter.

If you don't want to turn off your phone at night, Kramer suggests putting it somewhere where you have to go through a couple of steps to reach it, such as inside a backpack, out of reach of your bed.

That doesn't sound like an entirely workable plan to the girls from Perpich Arts High School.

"We'd be late for school," said senior Sadie Haddow. "My phone is my alarm. It does disrupt the sleep cycle, but you can always turn it off."

Now that's music to the doctors' ears.

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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