Almost every night, I sit in bed and stare at my phone. Then I fall asleep and dream about the internet. I send friends imaginary iMessages and hear the woo-Oop sound and then the ding when they reply. I scroll through nonsensical tweets and read Slack messages from my boss. Since I bought my first smartphone in 2008, the internet has oozed its way into the subterranean parts of my consciousness. Maybe it feels like the same thing has happened to you too.
Plenty of research has looked at how smartphones and social media sites affect our habits, our relationships, our brains, and attention spans. There are also plenty of studies documenting how excessive use of these new technologies may lead to poorer sleep. But there’s little research on how our constantly internet-connected lives may alter the content and quality of our dreams.
That's partially due to the fact that studying the phenomenon of dreaming is incredibly difficult. Researchers are almost always forced to rely on what people remember about their dreams, rather than directly observable data.
"The only way for researchers to be sure that someone is dreaming is by awakening the sleeper, thus terminating the dream," says Raphael Vallat, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California Berkeley who studies sleep and dreaming.
So dreams remain mysterious; we don't yet know what purpose they serve, or exactly how to interpret them. But that doesn't mean research about media consumption and dreaming is nonexistent. In one study published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition in 2008, older participants who grew up watching black and white television reported dreaming more in grayscale than those who had consumed color TV, suggesting that access to media might have some sort of effect.
What the Research Says
Many dream researchers support an idea called the "continuity hypothesis," which says we tend to dream about the people and issues that preoccupy our waking thoughts. This doesn't mean that dreams reflect our waking lives necessarily, just that they tend to be about the same people and issues that concern us when we're awake.
"Dreams really rarely replay a memory exactly as it was experienced, but rather integrate some of its elements into a broader, distorted narrative," Vallat adds.
If you're obsessing over your friend’s Instagram comments or your own conversations on Twitter, the continuity hypothesis would suggest that it's reasonable for those things to appear in your dreams in some form as well. And people are definitely dreaming about the internet, at least according to anecdotal reports. Plenty of individuals say they experience social media-themed dreams, or dreams about apps they use for work, like the messaging service Slack. "I have dreams about Google Docs constantly. It really bothers me when I can’t remember what I was working on," says Caroline Haskins, an intern at news site The Outline.
But is constantly being on the internet or consuming other new forms of media changing how we dream? Researchers like Jayne Gackenbach are trying to find out.
Gackenbach, a psychology professor at MacEwan University, has been studying dreams and digital media since the 1990s. She acknowledges that her work is often based on what people self-report. "How much do you trust what someone says? That's a longstanding issue in any kind of dream research," she says.
With that caveat, though, her research has found that playing videogames for a significant amount of time can alter both the content and the quality of a person's dreams. She’s conducted a number of studies that observed an association between playing videogames and an increase in lucid dreaming—a phenomenon where a person becomes aware they’re dreaming and can potentially control their actions. A follow-up analysis in 2013 proposed that “gaming may be associated with dream lucidity because of the enhanced problem-solving quality of gamer’s dreams.”
Gackenbach has also found that playing videogames may provide a "protection" against nightmares, at least for some male gamers. That might be because videogames often simulate "fighting back" against threats, a scenario which is mimicked in the gamers' dreams.
What About Social Media?
But playing videogames is not the same as scrolling on Facebook or sending messages on Snapchat. It's possible that these activities impact our dreams in a different way—and Gackenbach is keen to learn how.
Recently, she polled 481 university students about their dreams and media habits. Specifically, she asked them to recall a dream that involved some sort of electronic media—such as television, videogames, or social media—and what electronic media they had consumed the previous day. Students who used interactive media, like playing videogames or chatting with friends online, reported higher-quality dreams than those who, say, passively consumed TV shows.
"Those that used interactive media reported more control over their dream," Gackenbach says. She presented her findings at the International Dream Conference in Arizona earlier this month.
Gackenbach's findings—that the type of media we consume may affect the kind and quality of dreams we have—feel intuitively correct. More than one person has blamed their nightmares on watching a scary movie late at night. Yet other researchers dispute the idea that what we do during our waking hours has much impact on what we dream about. In which case, you could terror-scroll through Twitter all you want before bed—the bad tweets won’t attack you in your sleep because of it.
"Generally, outside influences have little or no influence on dreams," says G. William Domhoff, a professor emeritus in psychology and sociology at the University of California at Santa Cruz and the author of The Emergence of Dreaming. "But since the dominant view is stimulus and response in psychology, and more generally in terms of American can-do [there’s the notion that] we can shape anything, everyone denies that dreams are spontaneous thoughts that appear under certain conditions."
Domhoff points to a number of studies that in his view support the idea that daily events don't have much of an effect on our dreams. In one, 50 participants learned how to navigate a virtual maze on a computer and then were asked to take a nap. Only four reported having dreams related to the task.
So don't swear off the internet forever just because you keep dreaming about accidentally liking your ex's Facebook post. The truth is we don't really know what it means. Just take comfort in the fact that you're not alone.