Are health apps offering wellbeing solutions or exacerbating our health problems?

In the era of smartphones, we can now manage and even improve our health on our handheld devices. Whether you’re struggling with your mental health, want boost your physical health with your exercise regime or, you’re seeking to achieve a better night’s sleep — there’s a wide choice of apps to turn to for support.

Apps range from guided meditation to comprehensive running plans, and they can even track your sleep and mood. But are they doing more harm than good?

Could sleep apps be making our sleep worse?

Some of the most innovative uses of health technology are apps that track our sleep. Whether you use your mobile phone or a smartwatch, you can track how long you slept for, the time you spent in deep and REM sleep, and even set an alarm to wake you up in your lightest phase of sleep (which is proven to be the easiest time to wake up).

Many of these apps are designed to help us sleep better by waking us at the right moments and providing insights into how we’re currently sleeping. But, conversely, they could be making our insomnia worse — or even triggering insomnia in the first place.

Sleep disorder specialist Dr Guy Leschziner has said that these apps are making us anxious and obsessed with sleep, which negatively impacts our ability to, well, sleep. If these apps tell us we’ve had a bad night’s sleep, it acts as a placebo and makes us behave as though we have slept poorly — even if that’s not the case. They also don’t offer much in the way of actionable support, instead just offering data on how well we’ve slept the previous night.

Fitness apps put too much pressure on people

Similar to sleep trackers, wearable tech has given us insights into our fitness performance. We can track our running progress through our improved time and speed, and even see our energy expenditure throughout the day, with prompts to get moving if we’ve been stationary for too long.

These apps and devices are designed to be motivational but can make us feel worse about ourselves. The Digital Health Generation survey found that young people felt “anxiety and terror” when using these apps. It also noted that they can lead to unhealthy, obsessive behaviors such as overexercising and dangerous calorie restrictions.

While these apps can help us track progress, it’s important to not overuse them. They can help us understand if we’re not active enough during the day, but they can lead us to feel guilty and, as a result, engage in obsessive exercise.

Do mental health apps prevent you seeking real support?

Mental health apps, like Calm and Headspace, are almost as commonplace on our devices as Facebook and Twitter. Research has shown that the 15 most popular mental health apps were downloaded over a million times between February and May 2020 as lockdown took its toll on our mental wellbeing.

These apps have come under fire for their lack of scientific evidence, with academics criticizing studies that argue they are effective. Some used a small sample size, while others focused on people who weren’t receiving mental health treatment, meaning they couldn’t conclude that these apps help people manage existing mental health conditions.

Another issue pointed out by psychologist Chris Noone is that these apps can prevent people from seeking professional support for their mental health conditions. While some users may see improvements when using these apps, they aren’t a replacement for tailored support delivered by qualified experts.

Are all health apps bad?

While it’s clear that some health apps can worsen the problems they’re designed to help with, they can have a place in our lives. These apps should never be used as standalone solutions to medical problems though.

Apps like sleep monitors and fitness trackers can help us to identify a problem, but alone, they are not the solution. If you’re finding yourself tired throughout the day, for example, a sleep tracker can help you identify that you wake frequently through the night. Equally, a mental health app can help you track your mood, identify triggers, and provide in-the-moment meditation exercises, but formal therapy, with the help of private health cover, and medication may be required.

The apps are best used in conjunction with professional medical care. After using them to identify patterns, you could show your GP the information that identifies stress as a cause of sleep deprivation, and they can then provide you with the right treatments. Monitor your use of these apps and be aware they could trigger or exacerbate obsessive and anxious behaviors and prevent you from speaking to your GP.

As technology has grown more advanced, we now have access to health support at our fingertips. And while health apps can be useful to help us identify patterns or give us the opportunity for a mindfulness break, they aren’t the solution to our health problems. Instead, they should be used sparingly to support professional medical diagnosis and treatment.

Image credit: tommaso1979/depositphotos.com

Jonjo Hancock-Fell works at private health cover provider, Westfield Health.

Author: Martha Meyer