Study: Sleep app users are mostly healthy, affluent

By Jonah Comstock
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In a new study of 934 mobile phone users, 100 percent said they used a mobile phone for health-related purposes, but only 28 percent used an app to track sleep. By contrast, 53 percent tracked exercise and 48 percent tracked diet.

The data comes from an online survey conducted by NYU with the help of survey management company Toluna, which did the recruitment. Verizon provided funding. The study, which focused primarily on mobile sleep tracking, was designed specifically to include both male and female respondents, as well as respondents from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds. The results were recently published in the journal Health Communication.

"In the analysis we found that the people who were most commonly reporting sleep tracking on their mobile phone were actually people that were very healthy," lead researcher Rebecca Robbins said in a video provided by NYU. "We saw indications of high socio-economic status, but also general health indicators were very favorable among this group. People who were sleep tracking were also tracking their diet or tracking something related to a health indicator."

The study revealed a lot of correlations with sleep tracking, some more surprising than others. Men were more likely to track sleep than women (35 percent vs 20 percent of respondents) and people in higher income brackets were more likely that those in lower income brackets (for instance, more than half of respondents making more than $100,000 per year tracked sleep compared to just over 15 percent of those making less than $25,000.

In terms of health indicators, people who tracked sleep also tended to have a higher self-report of their health, the healthiness of their diet, and their exercise habits. Interestingly, smokers were more likely than non-smokers to use the apps and people who had had a stroke or heart attack were more likely than those who had not. It's possible these apps could have been suggested by doctors for these users.

Unsurprisingly, people who used health apps for other purposes, like medication tracking, exercise tracking, or tracking a biomarker, were more likely to track sleep as well. 

The study has implications for the industry, as it suggests their could be a market for a sleep app aimed at lower-income individuals or less healthy individuals. Digital health apps have been criticized in the past for targeting affluent individuals at the expense of the populations that might need them the most.