We talk a lot about the threats that technology poses to healthy sleep -- the hazards of nighttime exposure to artificial light, the sleep-stealing impact of constant stimulation and engagement. But technology also has the capacity to change sleep for the better. New sleep technologies have flooded the marketplace in recent years. How are they working?
Learning about sleep tech
The National Sleep Foundation and the Consumer Electronics Association recently teamed up to learn more about sleep technology: who is using sleep tech devices, what's motivating them, how sleep technology is changing sleep and other health metrics. Their survey included 1,029 U.S. adults. Their inquiry posed a range of questions about how often sleep technology is being used, what users believe it is -- or isn't -- doing to help their sleep and their overall health.
The sleep technology currently available to consumers fall into some broad basic categories:
- Multipurpose or sleep-only: A number of sleep technology options are in fact multipurpose, measuring activity levels, food intake and fitness in addition to sleep, while others are devoted exclusively to sleep.
- Wearable or non-wearable: Some sleep technology involves wearable devices (think FitBit and Apple Watch, among others), while others require no equipment on the body to track sleep and provide other sleep assistance.
- Tracking only, or "active" tech: Some sleep tech is completely devoted to tracking and analyzing sleep data, while other options offer sleep guidance and additional features (music, meditation) that are intended to directly influence sleep, along with -- or instead of -- tracking.
How common is sleep technology in people's lives today? The number might surprise you. Of the adults surveyed by the NSF and CEA, 22 percent reported using some form of sleep technology. A large share of those users -- 38 percent -- report using a wearable fitness and health tracker that also tracks sleep. Smartphone apps are the next most commonly used form of sleep technology.
Not everybody who owns sleep technology is actually using it consistently, however. Of those 22 percent who own a sleep tech device or app, less than 10 percent are using their sleep tech regularly. A significant share of people who own sleep tech don't feel they have a grasp on the technology: 23 percent of users say they don't know how their devices can be used to help improve sleep.
Who's using sleep tech?
Not surprisingly, many of the users of today's sleep tech products are young, health conscious, and tech savvy. Almost three-quarters of sleep tech users are under age 45. Among sleep tech users who use wearable technology, that number rises to 81 percent.
- Sleep tech users are more likely than non-users to be single or never married than non-users
- People using sleep technology products are more likely to be living in larger households than non-users.
- And 47 percent of sleep tech users have children under the age of 18.
The survey found that people who are using sleep technology consider themselves motivated to work on their physical and emotional health:
- 70 percent say they are actively working to manage their mental health
- 68 percent report eating healthfully most of the time
- More than half are trying to lose weight
More than half report getting what they consider sufficient exercise every week.
Consistent, high quality sleep is critical to mental and physical wellness. Sleep helps to avoid and alleviate depression and anxiety, it helps keep weight on track and supports healthy eating choices, and makes exercise routines easier to maintain.
Gender, generation gaps
Men are more likely than women to be using sleep technology these days -- 57 percent of sleep tech users are men, according to the study. Men are especially likely to be using wearable sleep tech devices.
There is also a pretty significant generational gap among current sleep tech users -- 71 percent of them are under age 45. Men and women ages 25-34 make up the greatest share of sleep tech users -- nearly one-third of people using sleep tech fall into this age range.
Tech savvy, sleep soundly?
The use of technology to improve sleep is part of a broader wave of comfort, interest and engagement with technology. Most of the people currently using sleep tech are "early adopters," people who are eager and motivated to hop on board with new technology of all kinds. Among current sleep tech users, 78 percent fall into this early-adopter category.
Ease and overall engagement with technology is also a factor in how people are learning about sleep technology products and what they promise to do for sleep. Nearly half of sleep tech users -- 46 percent -- report getting information about sleep tech from online reviews, compared to 32 percent of people who don't currently use the technology. For those non-users, information gathered from physicians and other health-care professionals is the most popular -- and most trusted -- resource.
Luxury, not a necessity
What are the barriers to using sleep technology? Awareness is one. Twenty-nine percent of people reported not being at all aware of sleep technology. Even among people who own some form of sleep tech, 25 percent report being not very familiar with the technology.
Cost is another barrier. Among non-users of sleep technology, nearly half report that the technology is too expensive.
Many people who don't currently use sleep tech say they simply don't have a sleep problem that warrants the help -- 40 percent of non-users say this is the case. Interestingly, that number drops to only 10 percent among non-users who are sleeping less than six hours a night.
Sleeping in comfort (with technology)
Comfort is a key issue for both users and non-users of sleep technology -- it is among the most important factors in considering whether to use sleep tech. Reliability and price are as important as comfort to respondents. Usability and durability are also ranked highly as attributes, as are the accuracy of tracking and the ability to convert sleep assistance into real-life improvements to sleep.
Many people care about the location of the device during sleep -- do they have to wear something while sleeping? Is it necessary to have a monitor or a smartphone at the bedside to take advantage of high-tech sleep help?
These are excellent questions -- for all the potential good that sleep technology may do, it can be undermined if the presence of devices is at all disruptive to sleep.
Technology is often regarded as exclusively undermining to sleep, intruding into our lives at all times of day and night and compromising healthy rest. But the reality is more complicated than that. While there's little question that technological devices used at the wrong times can interfere with sleep, there is also great potential benefit for sleep in technology. Tools that raise awareness about sleep and deliver substantive information and guidance to people struggling with sleep issues stand to have a powerful impact.
Next, we'll talk a look at the health and sleep challenges that are motivating people to use sleep technology, and how effectively these technologies are -- or aren't -- changing sleep habits and patterns.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™