Technology is both the cause of—and potential solution to—just about all of our time management problems. It’s even having its way with our sleep schedules.
The city at the heart of the technological revolution, San Francisco, is also the big city in America that gets the least sleep: only 6.5 hours on average, based on data culled from Bing. (Since several recent studies have shown that many Americans use technology shortly before bed and first thing upon waking, Bing data gives us a unique way to estimate sleeping and waking times.)
By contrast, people in Boston are getting the most sleep – about 90 minutes more – by going to bed more than an hour earlier and rolling out of bed almost 30 minutes later in the morning.
And yet – none of the implications that sleep experts have predicted from this lack of shuteye has come true.
For years, we’ve been told that Americans aren’t getting enough sleep. Our average nightly sleep time has dropped from 7.9 hours in 1942 to 6.8 today, and sleep experts can’t stop wringing their hands. Insufficient sleep is blamed for everything from motor vehicle deaths (which are actually dropping) to decreased productivity at work (which is actually rising). You would think that the makers of Ambien might be funding the half-dozen or so sleep studies that come out every year. Then again, it’s entirely possible that advances in workplace and motor vehicle technology, among other factors, have simply outweighed the detrimental effects of our increasing lack of sleep.
Nevertheless, according to data from Bing, we now know when cities are getting up and going to bed, relative to each other. And it turns out that even the 90-minute gap in average nightly sleep makes no meaningful difference.
Boston, with its more than 8 hours of sleep is, indeed, among the healthiest large metropolitan areas in the U.S., according to the 2014 American Fitness Index Personal Health Indicators Score. But guess which city comes in first among the top 25? San Francisco, with its bare 6.5 hours of nightly slumber. And Houston — which sleeps virtually the same amount as Boston — ranks among the least healthy large cities in the U.S.
We can even test, at the metropolitan level, Ben Franklin’s assertion that “early to bed, early to rise” makes you healthy, wealthy, and wise. Denver, it turns out, is both second earliest to bed (at 11:05 p.m.) and earliest to rise (at 6:46 a.m.). While it ranks among the healthiest large U.S. cities, it ranks lower than not only San Francisco, which sleeps the least of the cities we looked at, but also Washington D.C., which goes to bed 25 minutes later, and gets up 34 minutes later than Denver. Clearly there is more to healthy living than Franklin could rhyme.
Regarding “wealth,” while Denver is an affluent city, it doesn’t make the list of top 5 major metropolitan areas by median household income – although Seattle, which goes to bed a full 20 minutes later, does.
And if “wisdom” can be usefully approximated by a city’s per capita rate of graduate degrees, Denver comes in at under 14%, according to a 2013 study by Governing Magazine. Washington, DC, with its respectable but still middling nightly sleep time of 7 hours and 50 minutes, clocks in at a much higher 23%; and Boston and San Francisco come in at 19% and 17%, respectively.
Some of the sleep data by age and gender is equally surprising. Although it is widely said that we need less sleep as we age, Americans aged 65 and over appear to sleep a good 39 minutes longer per night than any other age group (and a full 71 minutes longer than their 18-24-year-old kids and grandkids). To be sure, older Americans may be more likely than other age groups to do things besides go on the Internet when they start and finish their days, but growing smartphone penetration rates among even the oldest Americans suggests this is something to be examined more deeply.
With regard to gender, it turns out that women unplug 40 minutes before men in the evening, and check back in 30 minutes after men in the morning. While women may well be doing things in that time other than the Internet, it may also be that women are wisely taking more sleep: recent studies suggest that insufficient sleep degrades women’s health more seriously than it does men’s. But, if they do sleep more, it doesn’t entirely square with the increasingly conventional narrative that women are diligently managing the trifecta of work, family, and community, while men just pass out on the couch at the end of the day.
Unless, of course, what men are doing during their extra 40 minutes of Internet time does not especially advance society … which brings us to the Bing-derived patterns regarding search content. As a share of total volume, searches for “adult content” or porn do indeed spike late at night, especially on Friday and Saturday. And yes, men account for about three times women’s searches in that department. But in absolute volume, porn queries are actually highest during the day. It’s a challenge for employers as well as spouses.
This is just the tip of the iceberg that big data can surface. Massive, data-driven evidence of behavior patterns, even beyond search patterns, can tell us more about actions and consequences than even the most well-meaning experts, and aphorists.
Mark Penn is EVP and Chief Insights Officer at Microsoft. Previously, he served as worldwide CEO of Burson-Marsteller, CEO of Penn Schoen Berland, and White House pollster to President Bill Clinton; and he is the author of the bestselling book Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes.