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The restless realm of YouTube’s sleep meditation chats

The videos play relaxing sounds, but the chats offer a reason to stay up.

Cynthia Greer (custom credit) / Staff

In the world of YouTube relaxation videos, there are pieces that run for hours that sound like rolling thunder to the beat of sputtering rain. There are live streams that echo with New Age-y notes or tinkling soft piano keys against the image of a flowing river on a moonlit night. Many of the live streams allow comments, but they also have chats.

“Guys can you help me with something,” one user whose handle includes the name “Princess" asked one night in the fall, around 3 a.m., Eastern time. The next three messages in the chat:

  1. “​princess wat help”


  3. “​go to damn sleep”

Another user encouraged Princess to share more. Princess replied: “​I can’t sleep cuz I keep thinking of this guy...”

At least one person was listening, writing back: “We all heart broken emos.”

Experts say relaxing sounds, from white noise to slow classical music, could help those seeking more restful sleep, depending on their aural preferences. The titles of these relaxation live streams often call out a mix of categories: meditation music, study music, relax music, deep sleeping music, healing music, and so on. But the sleep meditation streams don’t just offer a chance to unwind; these are haunts where global visitors stop in for conversation.

Which, of course, might not actually lead to sleep.

What users post is often random and freewheeling. They share tips that have helped them sleep and bemoan the things that keep them up. They flirt, troll, tell jokes, and banter. Sometimes, the bigot jumps out. Sometimes, people say, “Love you” before saying goodbye. Sometimes, people say how sad they are. An avatar appeared in a chat this month next to a stream of a crackling fireplace with a quick apology for lateness: “please don’t cry I’m here.”

Jason Stephenson, owner of a sleep meditation YouTube channel with more than 1.2 million subscribers, had to close his “Vortex” live stream when he moved in October. The response was swift.

“It was like we had destroyed a community of people,” said Stephenson, a meditation leader who now helms a team of full- and part-time staffers of about 10 people. “The amount of letters on Facebook and my email that I got saying, ‘Where is the Vortex video? That was our community. You’ve taken that away.’ ”

Vortex regulars “were trying to track each other down on the other live streams, but they couldn’t find each other,” Stephenson said. He felt sad about that. The second Vortex, he insists, should be up and running later this month.

Alex Coronado, 20, of South Philly, has been viewing calming music set to vistas of, say, a rushing waterfall, for roughly five months. He tried sleeping pills and meditating, but neither worked like watching the videos.

“When it’s nature and things, it’s just kind of ticklish in a smooth, subtle way,” he said of the sensation. He aims to give full attention to whatever scene he’s taking in. “You have that experience like when you swim, like you’re floating.”

He participates in chats for gaming videos, but never for sleep music.

“I feel like it’s kind of an oxymoron because you’re trying to go to a channel to help you sleep but you’re going to chat. You have to balance back and forth.”

Anita Ko, a physician who directs Drexel’s Sleep Medicine Fellowship program, said screen exposure before bed from a YouTube video, even one playing relaxing sounds, isn’t great for sleep. Melatonin, the hormone that helps maintain sleep cycles, surges in the dark. But screen light reaches sensitive eye receptors, tricks the mind in a sense, and delays melatonin production, Ko said. That worsens, she noted, when people hold their screens so close.

Participants in sleep meditation chats often share where they’re typing from and muse about visiting another side of the world. In November, an El Salvadoran dreamed aloud of living in Norway, where he could witness the aurora borealis. A Canadian from the Yukon Territories confirmed that the Northern Lights are indeed beautiful in person.

Many sleep meditation chats become multilingual. Popular with both teens and adults, the come-ons that at times appear have sparked concern among chatters.

It’s typical for multiple discussions to be happening at once. Well past midnight on one of Stephenson’s recent streams, some chat participants talked about preferred drugs (“This might sound like a stupid question but are shrooms made of mushrooms?”) while others reacted to Captain Marvel. Later, as some users just posted homophobic remarks, those in the favorite drug conversation moved on to offering personal fun facts:

  1. “​fun fact i have 13 bros and sisters i never met”

  2. “​Fun fact I love tomato slices on my bagel with cream cheese”

  3. “Fun Fact - I am on the ‘do not rent’ list at Enterprise because I’ve totaled 3 rentals in 1 year.”

  4. “Fun Fact - My ex cheated on me with Nick Cannon.”

  5. “fun fact Angie am I still the hottest one here” [Note: Angie responded “yes”]

  6. “Fun fact: that’s a lie 😂”

Stephenson, who lives in Windang, Australia, a fishing village nearly two hours south of Sydney, described the chats as a mixed bag. Sometimes, people can be “outright nasty and awful,” he said.

“And that’s what I find very difficult,” he said, “because my channel is based on love and healing, and so that’s what we want and that’s what we’re aiming for."

Stephenson’s team previously included moderators, but team members are now working to retrain them because of complaints that they had been too heavy-handed.

He says he wants visitors to sense that they’re going to be OK and that they’re a part of something bigger. He figures the chats show people that if they struggle getting to sleep, they’re not alone.

Ko doesn’t discourage sleep music streams but cautions that they should be viewed earlier at night. She recommends limiting screen exposure one to two hours before bed. People who listen to YouTube streams in darkness, she advised, should keep the volume low and put the sound on a timer.

Sleep meditation channels and social media, Ko said, help some people decompress at night because they offer distractions.

“That’s why people used to count sheep. When you’re counting sheep, you’re not thinking, ‘I had a stressful day at work,’ ” Ko said. “Whatever an individual finds relaxing, they can use that in moderation.”