Smartphone sleep tracking apps aren’t really useful, here’s why

Maximilian DE COURTEN, Professor of Global Public Health, Director of the Mitchell Institute (Victoria University), Moira JUNGE, Health Psychologist, Academic Research Assistant and Shantha RAJARATNAM, Professor (Monash University)

Maybe you use a smartphone app or smartwatch to “self-monitor” your nights, hoping you’ll sleep better. Paradoxically, these devices can be a source of stress and wakefulness that reinforce sleep disorders instead of solving them.

If you’ve always had trouble falling asleep or sleeping well at night, you might be thinking about using a smartphone app, fitness tracker, or other sleep tracker to try to fix it. This trend towards self-monitoring of sleep is on the rise. This, however, can lead to a paradox, by setting up patterns of stress and wakefulness that worsen sleep problems instead of solving them… Explanations.

Also read: Six tips to stop thinking at night and fall asleep faster

What is “normal” sleep?

The amount of sleep needed, as well as preferences for sleeping early or late, varies greatly from person to person. Some of these differences are related not only to age, but also to cultural, environmental or behavioral factors. Some, at least in part, are of genetic origin.

In addition to these differences between individuals, each one is naturally subject to a relatively high level of sleep variability (while remaining within what is considered normal) – the quality of our sleep is not always exact even from one night to the next, and that usually doesn’t surprise us. Most adults need about eight hours of sleep every 24 hours, but depending on the individual, sleep requirements can vary from about six to nine hours.

The reasons for this “normal” sleep change are not fully understood. However, some people who consider their sleep as insufficient worry about getting a “good” night’s sleep that they have some kind of performance anxiety, which creates time to sleep.

Also read: The quality of our sleep decreases with age, here’s how to fix it

How do sleep tracking apps work?

The latest sleep tracking apps use data such as sound, heart rate, and movement tracking (which shows how long the user has been lying down or up) to estimate what happened during sleep.

Many of these apps use data from wearable devices, such as the Apple Watch, to calculate a sleep score and create graphs to show changes that occur during sleep. These analyzes based on the sleeper’s sounds, movements and heart rate can be supplemented with questions about sleep quality.

The authors of these apps claim that they can determine how long a sleeper spends in light sleep, deep sleep, and REM sleep, characterized by rapid eye movement (REM), as even the number of disturbances that occur during sleep. But is it really so?

Also read: Young parents need six years to regain good sleep

Are these applications accurate?

Usually, websites that compare sleep apps to find out which are the best performers list and test the functions and features offered, without verifying if the measurements made are exactly the same. their designers claim.

However, although these trackers have become relatively accurate in terms of distinguishing the state of sleep from the state of wakefulness, their ability to evaluate the different stages of sleep remains unreliable, and consistency is still lacking.

Are using sleep tracking apps dangerous?

Do not attach too much importance to these data, which may be inaccurate. And above all, avoid setting unrealistic sleep goals, at the risk of worrying too much about it. One should not immediately think that uneven sleep is a problem or that waking up at night is not normal.

To date, only a limited number of studies have examined how these accessories work wear (wearables) can be effectively used to obtain positive behavioral changes in the “sleep body”. And the work that has been done has been done in small samples. The most recent study found a small positive effect of using such devices – but it was in healthy volunteers who did not have sleep problems.

An increased focus on optimizing this biometric data, on the other hand, can lead to unexpected problems, such as focusing on getting the numbers right. This phenomenon has become so common that a name has been created to designate it: orthosomnia.

Also read: The US Army technique to fall asleep in 2 minutes flat

What is orthosomnia?

Described as an anxiety phenomenon that affects people who are obsessed with the results of their sleep tracking apps or devices, orthosomnia is not a medical disorder. Current knowledge of orthosomnia is based on small case studies involving a few participants.

People with orthosomnia tend to think that trackers offer very accurate sleep information. They rely on this data more than more objective tests, such as a comprehensive sleep assessment performed overnight in a specialized clinic (polysomnography).

This can lead them to adopt behaviors that are less effective in improving the quality of sleep (such as spending more time in bed to improve the data collected, which actually deteriorates the quality and quantity of sleep).

Also read: From lack of sleep to anxiety, a vicious circle

Should you uninstall sleep tracking apps?

For people who sleep well and are interested in tracking their data, these types of devices may have some appeal. In this context, they have no risk. However, if you are concerned about the quality of your sleep and are a source of anxiety, you may not be the ideal candidate for this type of sleep tracker.

And the most important thing to remember is that no commercial device can match your own brain when it comes to telling you that you are sleep deprived… If you stay alert and can concentrate (without the crutch of caffeine. ), if you feel like you have a good quality of life at work and at home, then you’re probably getting enough sleep!

The original version of this article was published on The Conversation.

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