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The pros and cons of menstrual tracking apps

04 April 2024

Millions of women worldwide use apps that provide insight into their monthly cycles. The makers of these apps promote their products as tools for women to better understand their bodies and gain a sense of control. But do the actual users of these apps feel the same way? That is what Lisa Stuifzand investigated in her Master's thesis. She, along with her thesis supervisor, Dr Rik Smit, a lecturer in Media Studies, then turned the thesis into a scientific publication.

Text: Marjolein te Winkel

Apps like Clue, Clover, and Flo have been popular for years, used by millions of women globally. They predict when the user will menstruate and indicate when she is fertile. To provide accurate cycle predictions and determine fertility windows, these apps require a plethora of user information: about menstruation, emotions, mood swings, pain, sleep, energy, sexual activity, social life - you name it.

Control and empowerment

Stuifzand examined how women perceive using these apps. Do they feel a sense of control and empowerment, as the app makers often claim? To investigate, she conducted two focus groups with users of menstrual apps, extensively discussing their app usage. Additionally, she conducted research on subreddits - online forums where visitors share information about specific topics. Her research confirms that women use these apps to track their menstruation and their physical and mental well-being, and demonstrates that users perceive this as both liberating and controlling.

Stuifzand: "These apps are designed to give women a sense of control, and they do. For example, if you know you are going to menstruate, you can make sure you have pads or tampons with you. This way, you will not be caught off guard - and that is important because menstruation still carries a taboo. It is still often seen as something dirty, something not to be shared with others. The information women receive about how their bodies work is therefore very valuable and important for women. Moreover, they can use that knowledge to gain more insight into their mood and feelings, and to take more care of themselves during different phases of their cycle."

But to gain that control, users must feed their app with information every day. And that is where the tension arises, Stuifzand observed. "Users are very involved with the app, and thus with themselves. They are very aware of their body, their mood, their feelings. The risk is that they start surveilling themselves and that they take the information the app provides as a benchmark for how they should feel. This goes against the control they want to experience."

Stuifzand excellently brings out this tension in her thesis, according to thesis supervisor Rik Smit. "Lisa's research is one of the first studies on the use of and experience with menstrual apps. And she has done it so well that we did not want this to remain just a thesis. Therefore, we rewrote it together so that it could be included as a chapter in a book on Femtech: technology specially designed for women."

Why does everything have to be pink?

In her research, Stuifzand also examined the design of the apps and observed biases about femininity and sexuality in them. Stuifzand: "For example, in the focus groups, attention was drawn to the color scheme of the apps: 'Why does everything have to be so pink?' The focus is on getting pregnant, while that is not a reason for all users to use the app." Some apps also provide information on weight loss and advice on how to make your face look slimmer. Stuifzand: "The implicit message of the app is that as a woman, you should be slim."

Moreover, the apps also seem to operate on a somewhat one-dimensional view of sexuality, says Stuifzand. "For example, in the app, you can indicate whether you had protected or unprotected sex. This assumes that sex is only between a man and a woman, and therefore that heterosexuality is the norm."

Smit: "These apps tend to assume one norm anyway. They try to capture the menstrual cycle based on numbers and data and work best when a woman has a 'normal' cycle. But most cycles are not normal. Users need to be aware of this so that they do not become too dependent on an app."

With whom do women share all that data?

For many women, the apps are a natural part of daily life. But with whom do they actually share all that intimate information? Where does all that personal information end up? "Privacy issues are not always the first thing a user thinks about with these types of apps - until the potential risks become clear", says Smit. "For example, we saw this in the summer of 2022 when the Supreme Court in the United States overturned the constitutional right to abortion. The use of menstrual apps clearly decreased that summer because women were afraid that the information they entrusted to these apps could be used against them, for example, in a lawsuit. It is typical for many tech companies to first develop something and only then become aware of the ethical aspects of their product. Users of these apps may wonder what guarantee they actually have when it comes to their privacy. They have no insight into this and no control over it."

About Rik and Lisa

Rik Smit is a lecturer in Media Studies. Lisa Stuifzand studied Media Studies and completed the Master's track Datafication and Digital Literacy at the Faculty of Arts, University of Groningen. She graduated in August 2022. Smit and Stuifzand co-authored the chapter "Between Liberation and Control: Mixing Methods to Investigate How Users Experience Menstrual Cycle Tracking Applications" as part of the book FemTech - Intersectional Interventions in Women’s Digital Health, published in December 2023.

Last modified:02 May 2024 2.42 p.m.
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