The ‘FemTech’ industry (to use a term first claimed by Ida Tin, founder of the Berlin-based Clue app) has seen $1 billion investment in the last 3 years (source article here). The Google Play and Apple App Stores are teeming with apps claiming to help women track their periods, understand their bodies and potentially even, get them pregnant!
1. The science is often hidden or non-existent
A study by the Colombia University Medical Center, that looked at 108 mobile menstrual cycle tracking apps, concluded that “Most free smartphone menstrual cycle tracking apps for patient use are inaccurate. Few cite medical literature or health professional involvement.”
Why could this be an issue for you? For example, if you trust an app to tell you when your ‘fertile window’ is and you trust it blindly (say, feeling that it is ok to have unprotected sex outside of this window that your app tells you about). This may be ok, if you’ve discussed this risk with your partner, and had the discussion as to what you would do if you did get pregnant. But it may well not be ok. There are many factors that may affect when your ‘fertile window’ falls (firstly, the app is assuming you’re fertile in the first place) – conditions such as Endometriosis, as well as certain lifestyle choices (like smoking or your weight) may affect when and whether you’re really fertile in that little ‘fertile window’ that pops up in your app.
What you can do – check the science behind the app. Look for the information on their website, as to how they calculate the different parts of the menstrual cycle. Discuss with your doctor to make sure you understand the science behind what your app is telling you.
2. There’s little regulation in the field
Law makers are struggling to keep up with the speed at which technology raises ethical and legal questions. As an EU citizen, you are protected by the GDPR (which means, amongst other things, that you have the right to ask the company to delete all the data that they store about you, or at least to request a copy of all the data they store of you.).
Beyond that, there is little regulation as to what the period-tracking apps are telling you. For example, an app could tell you ‘Your period is due tomorrow’ but there are no legal organisations who are actually going to check such claims. The logic of the app could be based on a religious man’s opinion about what he thinks a woman should do with her body, but no-body is checking this or regulating it.
3. You’re sharing extremely personal data with software developers & corporations who are out to make money from your data
Do you tell your closest friends each time you have sex, what position it was, whether your partner ejaculated inside of you? Unlikely. So do think twice about telling this little app in your hands such information.
While there are many really helpful uses of such data (for example, data (lots of it, from a huge group of people, rather than just you) could potentially make a correlation between a specific sexual position and conceiving a child.), often it is used primarily for financial gain – to feed targeted advertising for example. If you tell an app that you’re trying to conceive or that you’re pregnant, and they share this information to, say, Facebook, Facebook can start targeting you with adverts for maternity wear, fertility tracking products and so on.
4. The apps are very much geared towards heterosexual women who menstruate, who are in a relationship and who are fertile.
Other user groups could & should include – trans men who have periods, women who do not ovulate but would like to track the hormonal fluctuations in their body, non-binary people, non-fertile women, women not desiring ever to get pregnant, and and and… the list goes on.
The point is that these apps tend to make a few assumptions about their users. Making assumptions such as ‘a woman’s average menstrual cycle is 28 days’ can feed into the general user experience, not to mention the algorithms, calculations that are behind, for example, when you are told it is your ‘fertile window’.
5. The apps are often created by men
The fact that an app is created by a man, or a team of men, isn’t necessarily an issue – men can be good product developers and good creators of software. The issue is rather that this lack of diversity in tech reinforces the number of assumptions that your app is based on – if these men have no experience of the spread of what is normal for a woman’s body, this will be reflected in what they build.
The figures are hard to nail down, but according to this article of the people working in software development, only 16% are female. A period-tracking app built by a diverse group of developers and product managers – would be one more likely to take into account the diverse needs to its users. (It’d be less likely to be baby pink or blood red, for a start!).
For many women, period-tracking apps are a really helpful way to monitor their reproductive health, track their periods, learn more about their bodies, and also a great supplement to information they receive from their doctor or ob/gyn. It is extremely empowering to recognise patterns in your mood, in your bleeding and in other hormonal changes in your body, to be able to flag potential health issues to your doctor.
It is important to be aware of the points above, so you can make an informed decision and understand that information fed to you in an app should never replace advice you get from a medical professional. Equally, if you’re not happy with your medical advisor/doctor etc, you should always try to get a second opinion. For tips on having good conversations with your doctor, check out this article.