To stop 'sleep texting' among kids, parents need to wake up

  • Article by: ELIZABETH SHRYER BOYLE
  • Updated: December 6, 2013 - 5:50 PM

To stop ‘sleep texting’ among kids, parents need to wake up.

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In this Oct. 24, 2013 photo, Mark Risinger, 16, checks his smartphone at home in Glenview, Ill.

Photo: Nam Y. Huh, Associated Press

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I read with interest “New disorder troubles teens — Sleep texting” (Dec. 5) about teenagers who use their cellphones to text messages so much that they essentially burn into their brains an automatic behavior. It’s so automatic that they text messages in their sleep and don’t even know it.

As a psychologist who has treated many hundreds of teenagers and their families during my 30-plus-year career, I was a bit horrified to see this problem called a “new disorder.” I agree with Dr. [Gerald] Rosen of Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota that “sleep texting” is an automatic response much the same as when I, as a 7-year-old, climbed out of my parents’ bedroom window onto the roof when I was sleepwalking one night. Must have needed some fresh air, I guess.

As a practitioner, I am well-versed in the use of clinical hypnosis, which utilizes the subconscious, automatic behaviors that are learned through repetition and rewards. Then the behaviors become deeply embedded in the brain and in the subconscious. Again, Rosen is correct that this behavior is symptomatic of a bigger problem.

I have advised parents for many years that cellphones and other electronics do not belong in kids’ bedrooms at night. Parents have long complained about children who present with depression symptoms and who, it turns out, are terribly sleep deprived from using cellphones in their rooms under their covers until two or three in the morning. All cellphones belong in Mom’s and Dad’s room, lined up in a row, recharging overnight. This is a parental and family issue. It is not solved by wearing mittens to bed or leaving a cellphone on a side table in the child’s room.

If I sound stern, it’s because children’s brains aren’t developed enough to reason these things out; they need help until they can control their behaviors.

Parents have a responsibility to help their children enjoy the benefits of their world, not be turned into zombies by the electronic communications world in which they live. Parents owe it to their children to set reasonable, sound limits that encourage lifelong healthy sleep habits and attendance at school or work the next day.

We also have seen dramatic increases in cyberbullying due to bullies not being able to see the reaction of the person who they have just harmed with text or Facebook messages. Not seeing the victim’s reaction, the bully can’t have any empathy, which normally stops much hurtful behavior. Hiding behind the plastic encased texting device or computer becomes dangerous. Again, have the parents done due diligence with their children in overseeing the use of phones, electronic games and the computer?

Anyway, I still would rather pick up a phone to reach somebody. A spoken message can’t be misinterpreted by not having voice inflection to give context to my words. And with text messaging I don’t get to hear the other person’s voice, either.

But my young adult children have already told me I am pretty hopeless regarding all electronics — so they text their dad. I still like to hear the sound of their voices.

Elizabeth Shryer Boyle, of St. Paul, is a licensed psychologist.

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