College Sleep: Sleep Texting and The Effects of Electronic Media on Students

College students are notoriously busy. And overstretched. They often forget to eat meals – often resulting in lots of unhealthy snacking – and they certainly tend to neglect sleep. Now however there is a new wrinkle in the sleep habits of the average college student: sleep texting.

The Rise of Sleep Texting

Never heard of sleep texting? It’s a very real thing. Some very comprehensive scientific studies have been conducted by sleep medicine experts to examine the issue, including one by researchers at the VillaNova College of Nursing that uncovered much of the surprising – and rather eye-opening- information we are going to be sharing with you now. It’s worth noting, by the way, that the study was conducted on a sample of college students in 2013, so as the ownership of smartphones by college students has actually skyrocketed  since then the problem is likely to be far more widespread today.

What is Sleep Texting?

It sounds funny. Texting in your sleep. However, as many a parent of an absent college student can anecdotally attest to it happens more often than you might think. That odd, late night response to a text – sent hours ago – that makes little sense. Or a strange message that seems to be a rather random thought (and a fairly badly spelled one at that) They can be disturbing, but as the Pennsylvania study proved, it’s very common.

Sleep texting refers to the act of texting while the sender is still technically asleep. While the college parent is likely to get one or two of these messages every once in a while the majority are sent out to the student’s friends, the people they spend all day texting back and forth with. And while they often make for very funny social media posts  the damage that sleep texting can do to a college student’s sleep – and therefore their overall health – is less of a laughing matter.

When Are Sleep Texts Sent and Why?

Most sleep tests are an almost involuntary response to the ‘ping’ of an incoming message notification (and let’s not forget that many phones will ‘ping’ at least twice to remind you to look at the incoming missive they are trying to alert you to) This means that most sleep texts are sent when the user is technically asleep but is so accustomed to responding to a text when that chiming notification goes off that they can indeed respond although not really awake, although often the responses are not very coherent.

The Villanova study actually uncovered just how common this behavior seems to be. Each of the students in the study sample – which was made of up sophomore through senior age college students from two private Northeastern US colleges – was asked specifically if they had ever texted in their sleep. Over a quarter of them – 25.6% to be precise – acknowledged that they had.

The habit seemed to be more common in young women, as 88% of the respondents who admitted to being sleep texters were female. And it seems to be a college related issue too, as 62% of the sleep texters reported that this was a new behavior, one that had begun only when they had left home to live on their college campus.

Unsurprisingly, as their conscious mind was not really functioning in when they sent texts in their sleep most of the students – 72% – said that they had no real memory of sending the text and had only discovered having done so when fully awake in the morning. Most had done so by checking their phone history (in 95% of cases in fact) while a handful said they were informed by the recipients of their not so lucid missives. And who were those people? In 65% of cases students reported they usually sleep texted friends, 35% a boyfriend or girlfriend and yes, occasionally, a very confused (and probably then rather worried) parent

The College Student’s Growing Dependence on Smartphones

In the summary of the Villanova research, the study’s lead, Dr. Elizabeth Newton, noted, in regard to the commonality of sleep texting ” The attitude of college students regarding their mobile phone has shifted; the use and proximity of the phone has become habitual to the point where some students seem to have developed a hypervigilance toward their phones. This hypervigilance may be likened to that of a mother, who is able to sleep through many disruptive or loud sounds, but immediately awakens at the sound of her baby’s cry. Just as the mother has developed a special sense to hear her baby crying, college students may treat their phone in the same manner.”

Anyone who is a college student, or spends a lot of time around them, can attest to the fact that this observation is spot on. Many college students had, prior to going to college, no real use for a computer outside of basic schoolwork because the majority of their communications, recreational reading and even research was done via their smartphone. And most college students have not used a landline phone in years. Or owned a standard camera. Their phone is their everything and they are truly lost without it.

This explains why most students also take their phone to bed with them, giving them the access to sleep texting in the first place. Every sleep medicine expert routinely recommends not doing this but as the study uncovered, the majority of college students (87%!) still do. They just can’t get their heads around the idea of leaving them on a nightstand (on silent) it seems, even if the common wisdom is that it is a bad idea to actually take the phone to bed.

How Much Sleep Should College Students Really Be Getting?

We all know college life is a busy one. But even so, every expert agrees that getting enough sleep should be a priority. But how much is enough for the average college student?

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, ideally the average college student aged between 18-25 years old should be aiming for eight hours of uninterrupted sleep at night. Their research has found that in students who do make the effort to do so it actually pays off in academic terms as well as physical and mental health benefits. One of their studies found that students who got enough sleep perform significantly better in tests and have a higher GPA overall.

The Effects of Sleep Deprivation on College Students

Not getting enough sleep – and quality sleep at that, which sleep interrupted by texting is not – is a problem for anyone at any age. But it can be especially problematic for students. Here are just a few of the problems that a lack of sleep can cause college students that you may not have been aware of:

Blurry Vision

Those who simply do not get enough sleep often find that their vision becomes rather blurry and they literally have a hard time focusing on anything. This is obviously not a good thing in general, but especially not for a young person who, in order to make it in college is usually attending lectures and classes all day, five days a week and really needs to focus on what they are reading and writing.

Dramatic Changes in Weight

A number of clinical studies have shown that a lack of sleep can have a serious effect on the bodies production of the hormones that regulate the metabolism, the appetite and even the way the body uses insulin, which can lead to unintended obesity – which is a serious health problem in itself, or, on the other end of the spectrum, disturbing weight loss.


Trying to make it through the day after another night of interrupted sleep many people find that at times they become very dizzy and disoriented. Some people who suffer from even begin having hallucinations, seeing or hearing things that are really not there.

Slurred Speech

Although people may not realize it there is a lot going on in the body while they sleep. One of the most important aspects of sleep is that it is a chance for the brain to reprocess  the events of the day and “regroup” itself for the coming day ahead (an action which manifests itself as dreams for many people) Deprived of the chance to do this the brain becomes far less efficient and in some cases something as simple as speaking clearly becomes very difficult.

Memory Loss

People who do not get adequate amounts of quality sleep often find that their mind “goes blank’ a great deal and that they have trouble remembering even the most recent of events. Again, this is related to the fact that the brain is simply not getting a chance to “rest’ in the way it should.

That’s bad news for a college student who is trying to take in – and retain –  a ton of new information on a daily basis. This explains the findings we mentioned earlier, that well rested students perform better academically than their sleep deprived peers.

And by the way, those famous ‘all-nighters’ that cramming college students are famous for pulling ahead of a big test or exam? According to the AASM they are useless. The lack of sleep is more likely to push information out of the brain and anything accomplished during a late night study session is not likely to be well retained. It’s a far better idea to head off to bed at a reasonable time and then flick through notes when they wake (rested) in the morning.


Depression, anxiety and poor sleep hygiene are conditions that often go hand in hand and all too often that fact goes unnoticed by both the person suffering and the people around them. Researchers are still investigating the actual connections but more and more studies are making the link.

Unusual Behaviors

Some people who have not gotten enough sleep will often say that they feel like they are “going crazy”. While that is probably not the case, mood swings and unusual behavior are not uncommon in those who do not get enough sleep. Normally mild-mannered people become irritable and intolerant, even sometimes violent, while normally happy, outgoing people can become withdrawn, quiet and sullen.

Preventing Sleep Texting

So, sleep texting has to stop. But given the average college students dependence on their smartphone it may be a wrench. After all, harking back to what Dr Newton had to say it may be a little like telling new parents to try to ignore their crying baby at night. However it can be done, and here are some tips for getting it right:

Beds Should Only Be for Sleep

The habit of taking a cellphone to bed comes from the habit that people – not just college students – have of using their beds as a spot to watch TV, read, finish homework, surf the Internet and yes, text. For college students getting into the habit of using a bed only for sleep, even if you have to go into a common area to watch TV or read (as dorm rooms are often quite small) can only be beneficial and conducive to a better night’s sleep.

Phones Need to Be Out of Reach

Basically, sleep texting is impossible if you can’t reach the phone. The idea of turning their phone off altogether is unthinkable to most students, but the act of putting it on mute (or using the DND feature) and then placing it just out of reach should not be. For those used to using their phone as an alarm clock a standard battery alarm clock only costs a few dollars and is actually a better bet in general as smartphone alarms fail far more often than they do.

A New Bedtime Routine Needs to Be Established

The final step in the process is to establish a new bedtime routine. College students should get into the habit of making sure that all of their smartphone communications are done an hour before bedtime, and then put the phone away for the night and spend the next sixty minutes relaxing out of bed. A relaxing warm shower is one idea, sipping a warm soothing, non-caffeinated beverage is another. The resisting the temptation to check that phone one more time heading to bed TO SLEEP.

This is all something that, admittedly, might take a bit of getting used to. But for college students (and others) the efforts to do so will be well worth it.