Your iPhone Is Trying to Get Into Bed With You — Should You Let It?

Your smartphone offers a number of apps all promising to help you get better sleep, but it can’t solve everything.

A number of new smartphone apps promise to help you get a better night’s sleep — but only if you tuck your phone in bed with you. Can this technology actually be helpful? Or will the light from your smartphone just be another distraction and source of disrupted sleep? Find out whether there’s evidence to back up these claims.

Sleep Apps for Smartphones

These apps — for example, Sleep Cycle, SleepBot, and the new FitBit app — use the accelerometer, a motion-sensing device in smartphones, to track your movement in bed during sleep. The app then analyzes your movements to estimate which sleep phase you’re in and times your wake-up alarm to its best guess of your lightest sleep phase.

By timing a smartphone’s alarm to the light phase of your sleeping cycle, Sleep Cycle and other apps allow people to wake more comfortably, said Maciek Drejak, creator of the Sleep Cycle app. Waking up at the optimal point in your sleep cycle helps you start the day without feeling drowsy, tired, or run-down.

Actigraphy and the Apps

The science behind these apps is based on a type of sleep study called actigraphy. Actigraphy uses a small electronic device placed in your bed that records your movement during sleep. In deep sleep, people tend to become totally still, while they usually move or even thrash during light sleep. According to an entry in the 2013 Encyclopedia of Sleep, actigraphy technology is excellent for estimating whether someone is asleep or awake, and for calculating the person’s total amount of sleep time.

The accelerometer in smartphones makes them a perfect fit for actigraphy. When paired with a sleep diary, an actigraphy app like Sleep Cycle can give people a fuller picture of their sleep habits, explained Brandy Roane, PhD, an assistant professor and behavioral sleep specialist at the University of North Texas Health Science Center.

Sleep App Drawbacks

Sleep doctors warn, however, that the apps provide only a rudimentary analysis of a person’s sleep and are not likely to help someone with a chronic sleep problem.

“The good thing about these apps is that they get people thinking more about their sleep and their sleep quality,” noted Nathaniel Watson, MD, an associate professor of neurology at the University of Washington in Seattle and co-director of the University of Washington Medicine Sleep Center. “The problem is [these apps] are nowhere near sophisticated enough to diagnose or fully assess or treat any kind of sleep illness.”

However, as Dr. Roane said, “monitoring one’s behavior can make someone more aware of what they are doing. If they notice they are waking up a lot in the middle of the night, for example, that is something helpful to be able to tell their doctor or a sleep specialist.”

Both Dr. Watson and Roane said they’re concerned that some people will try to use these apps to treat a chronic sleep problem. “Only a sleep physician can really help with that,” Watson said.

The bottom line on smartphone apps and your sleep? Don’t rely on the apps to provide a comprehensive evaluation of your sleep cycle. For example, the apps cannot indicate when you’re dreaming during rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep. To accurately do that, researchers at a sleep laboratory must attach electrodes to your head and measure distinct brain waves, Watson explained.

“These apps are very rudimentary and indirect measures of sleep,” Watson said. They can only tell you how much you moved around in bed.”

At any rate, if you are taking your phone to bed with you, make sure to turn off the other notifications your phone might send you while you’re sleeping, and turn the light as low as you can.

By Dennis Thompson Jr.