How iOS 10 Is Transforming the Way We Sleep

Is it actually possible for smartphones to help us develop the sleep habits we need?
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Krizia Liquido
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Is it actually possible for smartphones to help us develop the sleep habits we need?

Last year, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society developed a consensus recommendation for the amount of sleep needed to promote optimal health in adults: "7 or more hours per night on a regular basis." Among lowered immunity and increased pain, the review also lists weight gain, depression, and greater risk of accidents associated with sleeping less than that.

And according to the National Sleep Foundation, the effects of getting two to three less hours of sleep for a few nights are akin to pulling an all-nighter. "If that doesn’t sound like a big deal, consider this: Staying up for twenty-four hours straight and then getting behind the wheel is like driving with a blood-alcohol content that deems you legally drunk in all fifty states."

With addictive social media and news feeds at our fingertips, is it actually possible for smartphones to help us develop the sleep habits we need? Dr. Mathias Basner, MD, PhD, MSc and Associate Professor of Sleep and Chronobiology in Psychiatry, thinks so.

Dr. Basner recently wrote for HuffPo that while most people have access to an alarm for waking, "an evening equivalent—that is an alarm clock that tell us when to go to bed—has not been widely available until the recent introduction of Apple’s 'Bedtime' feature with iOS 10." The addition allows you to set both a waking time and bedtime and track your sleep over time. It also has new alarm sounds that start soft and build to a higher volume—what a genius thing!

I interviewed Dr. Basner to find out which Bedtime features are legitimately helpful. Plus, Verily's graphic designer, Emily Brett has been trying it for a couple weeks. "After reading all of the sleep articles," Emily shares, "it made me want to test out the iOS thing as well."

Q. Couldn’t we just set two alarms: one to go to bed and another to wake up?

Sure, but you'll lose out on convenient sleep tracking. With Bedtime, you set your alarm preferences for the week, including a reminder for when it's time to hit the hay. The app keeps a record of when you went to bed, how much sleep you got that night, and calculates a daily average based on the amount you got that week.

As of this writing, Emily had 6 hours and 41 minutes of sleep last night, less than the recommended average. But Bedtime shows her daily average is 7 hours 13 minutes—not bad! According to the experts, she'll just have to make up for it over the next few nights by going to bed a bit earlier. 

Q. Is there really a benefit to sticking to a regular sleep schedule?

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"Yes there is," says Dr. Basner, "The body gets used to a regular rhythm and prepares itself to get ready for the sleep period in the evening and the wake period in the morning (e.g., through secretion of the appropriate hormones). Keeping a regular bedtime is part of a good sleep hygiene."

"I'm trying to be more on a schedule and start my days earlier," Emily shares. "It has made me more conscious of my sleeping habits [like] how I sometimes procrastinate when going to bed."

Q. When you snooze, you lose, so what does Bedtime do about it?

We all know hitting snooze isn't great, but can Bedtime help? Dr. Basner tells me, "The idea is that the sleep between the first alarm and finally getting up after hitting snooze multiple times is less restorative compared to simply setting the alarm to the latest time you can get up and then doing it right away then."

After seeing her sleep data, I ask Emily, "Does that added time 'In Bed' mean you hit snooze?" "Catchin' me in the act!" she admits. "Now I try not to because I know it will record it." There you have it—iOS: 3. Emily: 0.

Q. The switch from using an ‘Alarm’ to a ‘Wake-Up Sound’—just a nicety or not?

From prior research, we know music that starts off slow and quiet and builds up to faster, more upbeat songs is best for working your way out of sleep inertia. It turns out the same could be said for your morning alarm.

"An alarm that gradually increases in loudness could be less stressful," says Dr. Basner, "especially if your partner sleeps in the same bed and does not have the same wake time. I would refrain from noises that are part of the natural environment, though (like birds chirping), as you might wake up to those natural sounds then, as well."

When I ask Emily if any other features are helping her sleep better, she mentions, "I really love the new alarms they have. They make waking up more pleasant. They start out quiet and then get louder so that you're not waking up to something really harsh. And they are more 'soothing'." 

Q. Back to the issue of screen time addiction. Does Bedtime help us there?

When she's procrastinating before bed, Emily is, "mostly texting friends or checking Instagram (help!)." Many of us have trouble going to sleep on time because we're on our screens (almost 50% of the last 2 hours before bed is spent watching TV, according to Dr. Basner's analyses). You'd think the new Bedtime feature would exacerbate the problem because you'd have to keep the phone near you to hear it go off.

"An easy solution is to keep [your] phone in airplane mode during the night, so it won't alert you to anything while you sleep. The alarm will still go off in the morning," says Dr. Basner. Touché. I tried it last night, and for such a small change, it totally deterred me from checking my phone before bed. I feel sheepish for not thinking of it sooner.

Even so, airplane mode isn't a Bedtime feature, so there's room for Apple to improve here. We're crossing our fingers that the next iOS comes with a feature that time blocks us out of select apps like Netflix and Facebook, much like the Freedom app does for a monthly fee (ah, the cost of productivity). In the meantime, we'll just have to learn how to exercise self-discipline without unplugging.

As we continue to put more and more emphasis on our sleep habits as a society, the iOS update seems like a step in the right direction. It's not revolutionary, but it's eye opening. If nothing else, it'll give you something to talk about—and now hopefully we'll be sharing how much sleep we did get instead of bragging about how much we didn't.

Photo Credit: Tina Sosna