April 11, 2014

Alarm clock

After a sleepless night, the alarm clock looms large. Credit: Batholith / Wikimedia Commons


  • Mariana Figueiro, Light and Health program director, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
  • Sean Chraime, head of product and business development, SDI Technologies
  • Maggie Delano, electrical engineer at MIT

Many of us use our iPhones to check in on Twitter, Facebook, the weather, Snapchat, Instagram — and that's all before 9 AM.

When we come home from work, it's OKCupid, another round of Facebook and Twitter, MyFitnessPal, MapMyRun, or Fandango.

So it makes sense that one of the biggest issues plaguing us — lack of sleep — may also have an answer in app land. There are apps offering everything from sleep diaries to a library of sound effects. And more and more apps seem to come out every day.

But, as with much else, that which giveth, taketh away.

We've all heard about the negative effects of computer screen lights on our ability to shut down.

Mariana Figueiro is the Light and Health Program director at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She says staring at screens late at night is like telling our brains that we’re looking at a sunny blue sky — in fact, that blue glow from our screens is the exact same wavelength as the blue, natural light above us.

"This light is delaying the onset of our evening melatonin," she says. "We’re tuned that way. If you delay the onset of that evening melatonin, you delay the darkness signal to the body, and you delay your bedtime."

Figueiro is working on the antidote: a personal sensor that she says can detect when we’ve exposed ourselves to too much light from displays. A sensor that would be great, for example, in a phone or a watch.

Light problems aside, there is also potential for sleep-related apps to solve problems we might not even know about.

Sean Chraime is head of product and business development of SDI Technologies—the company that makes iHome products and the iHome Sleep app.

"We are enabling our users to learn more about how you sleep and what happens during the night," he explains.

New apps promise to track your movements at night to help you figure out why you aren't feeling so rested in the AM. But, it's important to note, the app alone won't solve all your problems.

"I think sleep tracking can really help people, but it’s a bit more challenging than saying, 'Ok, I’m going to put this app at my bedside and I’m going to track my sleep,'" says Maggie Delano, an electrical engineer at MIT. She's working on wearable technology to help people monitor their health.

But she also says to really get to know more about your sleeping problems, you also need to keep track of what you're doing during the day by keeping a journal of what you eat, what is stressing you out, how much you exercised (or didn't).

"Devices and apps focus on giving you sleep quality," she explains, "but they don’t necessarily integrate very well with keeping a journal that helps you identify with specific aspects of your life that could directly impact your sleep quality."

Which means that all the apps in the world might not help you put the phone down and finally get some shut eye.

Business, Sci & Tech, Mariana Figueiro, apps, Sean Chraime, sleep, Body & Mind, Maggie Delano, quantified self

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