SEATTLE - One night, a man sent a former flame flirtatious text messages while his girlfriend was sleeping next to him. The next evening, he posted cruel comments about his significant other on Facebook.
While this may sound like the work of a terrible boyfriend, his actions weren't entirely voluntary because he hadn't been awake. The man was "sleep texting."
Dr. Lina Fine, a sleep neurologist at Swedish Medical Center, described the man as just one of a growing number of patients who report text messaging or updating social media while they're asleep.
In the same way that people sleepwalk, Fine said texting has become such a common behavior that people are reportedly doing it even when they're unconscious.
"The most powerful tool we have is language, and the smart phone has become a common way to communicate," Fine said. "It's reflective to go for something we use the most."
In some cases, Fine said people wake up during the night, send a message and then fall back asleep. When they wake in the morning they have absolutely no memory of their actions.
Dr. William DePaso, a sleep medicine specialist at Virginia Mason, said a person has to be awake at least 30 seconds to remember it later.
"My son can probably send 20 text messages in that time," DePaso said.
Other times, people will send text messages or use social media while they are completely unconscious. Fine said this is a symptom of parasomnia, a genetic sleep disorder in which a person exhibits strange behavior during sleep, such as walking, talking or eating. These behaviors are more common in children but can reemerge during adulthood if a person is sleep deprived or stressed.
Text messages, emails or tweets posted while a person is asleep can be nonsensical or completely understandable. Fine said these messages often come from a person's subconscious, so they may send offensive content that they would not normally share. One patient reported to Fine that they had texted negative thoughts about their boss to that person while they were asleep.
"The messages may be upsetting," Fine said. "A person may text an inappropriate message emerging out of their unconscious mind that the conscious person would not want to send."
Besides having a negative effect on relationships, Fine said using a phone or computer during the night prevents a person from getting truly restorative sleep. The next day the messenger may be tired, restless or irritable. Over time they may exercise less and gain weight, she said.
Fine said people who text while asleep are also at risk of more dangerous sleep behaviors like walking out of the house or getting in the car.
Digital devices can be to blame for some people's disrupted sleep, Fine said. Using a phone or computer before bed can keep your mind from relaxing, and the light emitted from screens can disrupt a person's internal clock. Fine said it is best to stop looking at television, computer or phone screens an hour or two before you go to sleep.
Fine said those who use digital devices just before they go to sleep are more likely to use them during the night.
"We have so many digital devices around us," Fine said. "We're never quite relaxed. We never really fall asleep. People wake up and start texting but right before they fall asleep the memory is essentially erased."
Sleep aid medications, which are becoming more common, can also cause people to use digital media while unconscious.
If you have been sleep texting, Fine said the first step is to remove digital devices from the room you sleep in. If that's not possible, DePaso recommends putting a lock or complicated case on the phone - anything that makes it more difficult to send a text.
DePaso also encourages people to ask their partner or family if they have any other odd sleep behaviors. If they do, they could benefit from seeing a sleep specialist.
As for Fine's misbehaving patient, he now locks up his cell phone and computer each night before bed and asked his girlfriend to keep an eye on his Facebook page.