There are many potential issues with wearing a smartwatch to bed, regardless of the brand or model of wearable.
You may wonder about the safety, the privacy and accuracy of your health data, its rechargeability, and whether the watch is liable to break or get scratched if you sleep with it on.
The good news is that it is usually safe to sleep with the latest Apple watch. Its radiation level is very low and non-ionizing. Among earlier incarnations, some SE models appear to overheat, but later series do not. Apple watches, whose screens have strengthened glass, don’t typically break if worn while sleeping; sapphire-crystal fronted watches perform better here than aluminum cases.
The larger issues surrounding Apple’s, or any company’s, smartwatches relate to their accuracy, data privacy, and whether continual self-monitoring is helpful—or healthful.
We can’t go through everything here, but let’s explore some concerns.
Radiation Risk from “Smart” Devices
Simply put, any radiation risk from your smartwatch is very low and non-ionizing.
The radiation is emitted in short bursts via low-powered radiofrequency (RF), you take the watch off for charging periodically, and the radiation is the least-harmful kind, non-ionizing.
Only ionizing radiation has been proven significantly deleterious to human health.
Smart devices expose users to only “very small levels of RF radiation over time,” so in this respect, they are currently safe to wear while sleeping (Source).
How Accurate are Smartwatches?
Because smartwatches do not currently measure brainwaves, medical experts have been at pains to caution that consumer smartwatch data lacks efficacy.
Efficacy is the ability to produce a desired or intended result.
As one study succinctly puts it in its title, “the wrist is not the brain.”
Thus, wrist-based consumer technologies have limited efficacy, especially with regard to individual patients not in the aggregate.
Consumer smartwatches, in particular, overestimate both sleep time and efficiency and are poor at identifying REM sleep.
In addition, it’s important to remember that consumer devices like the Apple Watch, Jawbone UP3, or Fitbit tend to provide less-accurate data than clinical actigraphic devices or polysomnography—data that fluctuate owing to gender, the presence of sleep disorders, and other factors (Source, Source, Source).
“Devices that yield false-positive readings, or are not clinically validated for accuracy, for hypertension or atrial fibrillation (essentially, chaotic electrical impulses in/around the heart’s atria) could result in unnecessary or harmful treatment” (Source).
“Given these large individual inaccuracies, data from these devices must be applied only with extreme caution in clinical practice,” one study concludes.
Instead, if you have an Apple watch with sleep monitoring, use the data to open a dialogue with your physician.
Do Smartwatches Cause Other Negative Issues?
Orthosomnia and Anxiety
Experts say do not over-focus on your device, whether you think of the data they give you as positive or negative.
Wearable devices might trigger an unhealthy quest for perfection or drive anxiety levels higher in some people.
Some medical authorities are also starting to explore a phenomenon they have called orthosomnia, or a preoccupation with “perfect sleep,” often measured through wearable devices or nightstand smartphones.
One of the earliest studies, and the one that coined the term orthosomnia, says that patients who over-rely on wearables’ data in absence of clinical validation, may represent “a perfectionistic quest for the ideal sleep in order to optimize daytime function” (Source).
They used orthosomnia (“ortho” means straight/correct, and “somnia” refers to sleep), “because patients are preoccupied or concerned with improving or perfecting their wearable sleep data.”
Insomnia and Smartwatches/Smartphones
There is some evidence that smartwatches can increase the insomnia many hope to monitor through their use.
“Some sleep specialists caution that these apps and devices may provide inaccurate data and can even exacerbate symptoms of insomnia” (Source).
Using your phone or smartwatch in bed to watch television or even get a handle on your fitness or sleep data amounts to bad sleep hygiene.
Here, basically, keep going to your physician and use them as the springboard for any sleep- or health-related concerns you may have. Gadgets may increase in number and sophistication, but having human feedback is always another useful data point.
Safely Using Smartwatches
One psychologist thinks that as long as people do not agonize over their sleep data, crossing over into hypervigilance and trying to “beat” the numbers from night to night, wearables can be safe and helpful.
Plus, these wearables are evolving ever-more-sophisticated functions. Dr. Daniel Jin Blum, Adjunct Clinical Instructor in Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine, notes that “. . . over time more devices will be able to track sleep at a more accurate level. Every iteration of current tech is getting better at predicting wakefulness . . .” (Source).
If you’re looking for a more reliable & private sleep tracking watch I personally use a Samsung Galaxy Watch Active (link to Amazon). I’ve been testing mine out for months and it seems to perform better than my Apple Watch. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to track their sleep with great accuracy!
The Mayo Clinic offers some smartwatch dos and don’ts, including:
- Do use your sleep-tracker for monitoring and setting sleep goals.
- Don’t—yet—use your tracker to assess sleep quality via sleep staging. They are currently just not accurate enough to be helpful.
- Don’t lose sleep over sleep tracker data (Source).
Dr. Alan Schwartz, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, advises that wearables “don’t measure sleep directly.”
They can, however, be helpful in helping you recognize sleep habit patterns.
If you are otherwise healthy and just want sleep-routine insights, go ahead and sleep with your Apple watch. “Just take the numbers with a grain of salt,” Dr. Schwartz concludes (Source).
Sleep Data Privacy
You might think that wearable data are safeguarded by the in-need-of-updating Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, from 1996. They are not (Source).
At a time when about 21% of Americans say they sport a smartwatch or other health data-harvesting wearable, many are concerned about privacy matters.
Who has access to their data, are their data following the k-anonymity model via blinding or aggregating (i.e., pooled so no one person is supposed to be identifiable), and are the data being sold to third parties (Source)?
There are even worries that anonymized data are capable of being “reidentified” via machine learning (Source).
In at least a few cases, we know that wearable data are being shared with third parties.
Google, which now owns Fitbit, and Apple have made deals with the John Hancock life-insurance company to offer “interactive” policies, which monitor policyholders’ health and fitness data via wearables or smartphones (Source).
Both medical experts and privacy advocates are alarmed—as are some wearable users—about how the data are wielded.
Could the data, for example, now or later be used to “penalize policyholders with higher premiums or to deny insurance” outright (Source)?
And do the data exacerbate healthcare disparities, in that people with modest to lower incomes sometimes cannot afford wearable devices?
For its part, Apple says its newest smartwatch with onboarded sleep-tracking and apps endeavors only to help you establish a sound sleep routine via Wind Down and positive reinforcement. “You can’t really coach yourself to have more or less REM stages. We felt like that wasn’t the best way Apple could add value here on sleep. . . .”
In addition, Apple’s VP of Technology said, “We treat the data that’s being collected on a user’s device with a high level of sensitivity around privacy. . . . Apple is not seeing your sleep data” (Source).
Only you can decide if you want to give up your data to Apple—or its third-party partners—by using wearable devices such as an Apple Watch.
If you have or sleep with an Apple Watch, with or without sleep-tracking capabilities, you should rest easy knowing the risk of radiation or the watch breaking is low.
Some tech-watchers speculate, however, that as battery life improves on these smartwatches with sleep-tracking capabilities, that they will transforms into “a device you’re incentivized to wear for 24 hours a day” (Source).
Whether you want to wear your fitness or sleep-measuring device 24-7-365, once that becomes possible, is entirely up to you.
You need only take smartwatch-wearing with the several grains of salt already mentioned and ask yourself a few things:
- Are my smartwatch data aggregated or protected and, if so, how?
- Are my smartwatch data sold to third parties; if they are, to whom and how will they be used?
- Am I overfocusing on smartwatch or wearable data in the absence of medical advice? Am I undertaking a fitness, medication or supplement, or other medical regimen based on smartwatch data alone, without expert medical advice (don’t do that, please!)?
- Do I have access to good tech support in the case that my watch breaks, is scratched, doesn’t load properly, or any other issues?
If you are happy with the answers to all the aforementioned, it is not inherently harmful to take a bite of an Apple Watch and see how you feel.
Apple watches can be the beautifully provocative, creative, information-providing, and entertaining devices that the better angels of Apple sought to make them when they were first conceived—but only if we as users hold them accountable for their accuracy and functionality, affordability, and privacy safeguards.