The vicious cycle of tracking periods with apps


Most apps assume all its users are heterosexual and female, or for bigger health tracking apps the menstrual cycle portion is only available to people who identify as female, which is unhelpful and sometimes upsetting to intersex people and transmen. Much of the language in these apps just operates on these assumptions as though the people who wrote them hadn’t even considered that the world might be more interesting.

That trend also leads to app developers assuming anyone who wants to track their period is trying to get pregnant through heterosexual sex. Again, going back to the interminably long 40-year span of menstruation, it’s safe to assume the vast majority of people who need period tracking are not trying to get pregnant. And yet, the pop-ups about “fertile windows” and prompting to log whether you’ve had sex are frequent, which are irrelevant to those in penis-free relationships, or single people, young teenagers, couples who use effective contraception, or infertile people.

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More than that, there is a lot of evidence that period tracking apps are extremely ineffective at predicting fertile windows and are filled with misinformation. Literature reviews have shown that most of these apps haven’t consulted experts in their development, and very few cite proper medical studies, so it’s no surprise that they get it wrong most of the time. This can lead some women to think they’re infertile when they’re not, or that it’s safe to have unprotected sex when it isn’t.

Then there are the free apps that share your data with advertisers. We all know that if you’re not paying for something, then you’re the product. But it’s still disconcerting to think that Facebook and Google might know when you last had sex, or how bad your bloating was that month. A recent report from Privacy International showed that apps like Maya and MIA shared user data with advertisers and third parties.

All the stigma around periods can make them feel extremely personal, and the hormones can make some people feel extra vulnerable. That combination makes targeted advertising around your period symptoms seem like an extra invasion of privacy.

The three big names in period tracking are Glow, Clue and Fitbit. Glow’s range of apps, including the popular Eve, are huge in the world of period tracking, with their articles and built-in social media. But it was originally designed and funded by cis men, and it shows in the assumptions it makes (and, with annual subscriptions costing $72, it’s very expensive). On the other hand, Clue is a pretty good minimal-nonsense app run by women with information from health professionals, but is still not without difficulties, including forced fertile windows. Fitbit is also super into fertility windows, and still has yet to make an accurate prediction for me after more than a year of use.

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Another part of the problem is that these apps don’t know what to do once a user gets pregnant, particularly if the pregnancy is unwanted or fails. Most of the period tracking apps don’t have pregnancy options and just assume the user is having a particularly long cycle, throwing off the rest of the data. Or if they do, they assume the pregnancy is carried to term and that users want to be reminded of it. That’s a pretty big problem. When it comes to pregnancy, they’re like dogs chasing cars; they know it’s something they want, but don’t know what to do if they get it.

Now that Apple is going wide with its first crack at proper first party period tracking in their Health app for iPhone and Cycle for Apple Watch, it’s clear that it’s learned from some of the mistakes of others. It’s not gender locked, it asks if you want to track your fertile window making it opt-in, the article in the app gives some vaguely useful basic info on periods and what to worry about, and it says in the information that the fertile window predictions are just estimates and ineffective. There are options on what symptoms and activities you want to track, it’s easy to log them, and it gives handy averages that could be medically relevant without a flower in sight.



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