Sleep Tracker Inaccuracy May Cause Obsessive Behavior


Activity trackers have become wildly popular in recent years, with people of all ages now data-driven when it comes to their fitness, food and sleep. But do these trackers actually help or hinder? According to research on this new obsession with activity trackers, collecting health data may not be as “healthy” as it claims to be.

After receiving a sleep tracker as a gift, one man decided to test it out to improve his sleep. Unfortunately, he soon found that this rest was even more fitful than before. He was rarely, if ever, able to reach his goal of sleeping eight hours a night, and his anxiety about his failure to do so only made his sleepless nights worse.

Credit: Maurizio Pesce/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

This is a common scenario among activity tracker wearers. The collection of data has the potential to become so addicting and obsessive that it negates any positive impact that it could have had. With approximately 15 percent of Americans wearing activity trackers, the question remains as to whether it is doing them any good.

“It’s great that so many people want to improve their sleep. However, the claims of these devices really outweigh validation of what they have shown to be doing,” said psychologist Kelly Glazer Baron, Ph.D., MPH. “They don’t do a good job of estimating sleep accurately.”

Related: Your Creativity Could Affect How Much You Sleep

It has been shown that sleep trackers do not show the most accurate report of sleep quality as they may claim. In one case, a woman repeatedly saw that her activity tracker reported fitful, restless sleep night after night. As a result, she felt fatigued and irritable due to her “lack of sleep.” However, when she entered a lab and had her sleep measured with a polysomnography test that measures brain waves to detect REM sleep, the results were a stark contrast to the data from her Fitbit; they showed a good amount of deep sleep. The reports from her sleep tracker caused her to feel more fatigued than she actually was.

Sleep trackers have been known to report inaccurate or incomplete data. Credit: Charlene McBride/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Activity trackers actually have a hard time differentiating between deep sleep and light sleep, often leading to inaccurate readings. However, the reports don’t change the way a person sleeps; it is the obsession of the data that causes someone to feel as if they did not get as much sleep as they actually did. This condition is called orthosomnia.

“We chose this term because the perfectionist quest to achieve perfect sleep is similar to the unhealthy preoccupation with healthy eating, termed orthorexia,” said the authors of the study, published in the Journal Of Clinical Sleep Medicine. The quest for perfect sleep can reach unhealthy levels and even go against the recommendations of sleep therapists. Many of the wearers will find themselves spending more time in bed as a result of their sleep trackers reporting poor sleep, even when this type of behavior can often go against the advice of a licensed professional.

Despite their flaws, activity and sleep trackers still have a large following, and, when used correctly, can promote healthy habits. The important thing is to not obsess over the data, but rather use it as more of a guide than an absolute.

Related: Fitness Trackers May Be Giving You False Heart Rate Data