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How COVID-19 and quarantine affect our sleep, fitness and privacy

This March 19, 2018 file photo shows a Google app in Baltimore. Apple and Google launched a major joint effort, Friday, April 10, 2020,
Patrick Semansky, Associated Press

The technology we use keeps track of us whether we like it or not. But data from health apps can help us understand the benefits and pitfalls of living and using our devices during a pandemic.

Conversations these days among friends and colleagues no doubt center around the coronavirus and how it’s affecting you and your family. The perceived influence quarantine has had on everyday life will depend on those interactions and how they change the lens through which you view this time. It may seem to you that people are bored, stressed, baking more than ever or eating healthier foods than ever before.

People are likely spending more time on their phones as we try to stay connected while in quarantine. And while The Washington Post reported many are “horrified” at the jump in their screen time usage, we can be thankful for the wealth of data that time online is providing.

First of all, this lockdown is definitely changing how we sleep. Fast Company requested a bunch of sleep data from different companies and crunched the numbers comparing how people are sleeping now compared to before quarantine. You may think all the stress from being locked down and home schooling kids would keep people up at night. But in looking at Fitbit data from six major U.S. cities, Fast Company found Fitbit wearers got 17 more minutes of sleep per night in April than they did in January.

Spending more time at home with the pantry just steps away has a lot of us worried about gaining extra weight. Putting on pounds while staying at home isn’t my main concern right now, but one can hardly scroll through social media without seeing jokes about gaining the “Quarantine 15” or about people wanting to “flatten their curves.” I appreciate psychologist Paula Freedman writing in Psychology Today that now is a good time to figure out how to get validation for something other than our looks. She encourages readers to “make a list of your strengths, and name the qualities you value in your loved ones.” Then learn to validate yourself and others for more meaningful characteristics than outward appearance. But, turns out we may be worrying about our weight for nothing.

In a blog post, wearables and technology company Withings shares that “although many fear self-isolation is leading to excessive comfort food weight gain, Withings has found that, actually, most people haven’t put on that many extra pounds.” The company’s data show that only 37% of Americans have gained more than a pound. Withings guesses at a couple of reasons why that might be. One is that people are still very physically active during lockdown and the other is that we are generally eating more often at home, partaking of healthier home-cooked meals.

It is comforting in this uncertain time to have this trove of information. But are we ready for the biggest technological test yet? The choice between knowledge and privacy.

At the end of April, Apple and Google showed public health organizations the first versions of their COVID-19 contact tracing tools. Those organizations can use these tools to build apps to help track exposure. Someone who tests positive could put in their diagnosis and then, using Bluetooth technology, the system would identify and notify those who have been in contact with the infected person. Apple’s statement says “privacy, transparency, and consent are of utmost importance in this effort.”

Google explains that it requires “explicit user consent” before anyone participates in contact tracing. There is no personally identifiable information, so everything is anonymous — even when someone gets the notification that they’ve been exposed to a person who has tested positive.

This type of information seems truly valuable as we try to reopen businesses around the country. But we all have to buy in if contact tracing is going to have any effect. Researchers at Oxford University’s Big Data Institute believe we can stop COVID-19 but only if approximately 60% of the population use a contact tracing app. “Even with lower numbers of app users,” professor Christophe Fraser writes, “we still estimate a reduction in the number of coronavirus cases and deaths.”

Sounds like a win to me.