Are sleep apps a blessing or a curse?

sleep apps

Monitoring your sleep patterns with technology is a popular option, but for some people it only heightens the anxiety of getting to sleep

Getting enough sleep is a global issue. Research shows that as many as a quarter (25%) of the population experience acute insomnia every year. For 6% of people, this develops into chronic insomnia over the course of the year.

Just some of the side effects of being under-slept include lethargy, irritability, inability to focus, poor memory, anxiety and even depression. It can also impact your physical health over time.

In the UK, the average person is getting around an hour less sleep than research suggest they need. Because of this, the sleep market has exploded. Sleep apps are just one of the modern developments designed to make sleep easier and more trackable. But how are these apps designed to benefit our health, and could they be doing more harm than good?

Sleep apps are more popular than ever

The sleep aid market continues to grow as people increasingly seek out ways to fix their troubled relationships with sleep.

Market research firm Persistence predicts that, by next year, the sleep aid market will be worth around $81 billion, or £64 million. This includes a wealth of gadgets, aids and apps which promise to improve and monitor your sleep, including anti-snoring masks and headbands that track your brainwaves.

Even Pokémon is going from ‘Gotta Catch ‘Em All’ to ‘gotta catch some Zs’ with the announcement of Pokémon Sleep earlier this year. As a follow-up to 2016’s Pokémon Go — which rewards users for walking and moving with their Pokémon — Pokémon Sleep promises to reward players for getting a good night’s sleep.

The benefits of sleep apps

Sleep trackers can be helpful in highlighting existing issues surrounding your sleep behaviour. They can give you the push you need to make more effort when it comes to getting enough sleep.

These apps are beneficial when they act as part of a wider appreciation of how important good sleep is. They can tell you when you went to bed and when you got up, helping you visualise your sleep behaviours and correct them if necessary.

Some sleep trackers will also inform you of how much you move during the night, and whether you slept through or drifted between waking and sleeping. This can provide the necessary motivation to improving your sleep habits over time, allowing you to accurately track your behaviours and determine what may be causing any issues with the way you sleep.

Sleep apps can more harm than good

There are limitations to sleep apps and trackers. For example, they cannot accurately differentiate between sleep stages, and they aren’t able to diagnose sleep disorder. They certainly aren’t a substitute for medical care.

Some instances indicate that sleep apps are capable of doing more harm than good. The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine coined the term ‘orthosomnia’, which refers to an obsession which achieving perfect sleep, in a similar way to orthorexia — the unhealthy preoccupation with healthy eating.

Orthosomnia is not yet a formal diagnosis, but it is being used by professionals to describe some of the potential consequences of using sleep apps.

Consultant in sleep and ventilation at the Royal Brompton hospital, Alanna Hare, spoke to The Guardian about such instances:

“I’ve seen patients coming in with their sleep trackers and telling me they have a sleep problem because their tracker tells them they’re not having enough sleep, or that all their sleep is light sleep.”

When Hare asks these individuals how they are feeling, many of them say they are feeling fine. It is the tracker which has led to their sleep-related anxiety.

One of the hallmarks of insomnia is effortful sleep, i.e. being overly focused on trying to get to sleep. For some individuals, monitoring their sleep with sleep apps can only serve to heighten this obsession, making it even more difficult to relax and drift off at the end of the day.

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