Content warning: The following text describes eating disorders and can be disturbing and/or triggering for some readers. Please find resources listed at the bottom of the article.
Like many other students, my summer plans were canceled due to social distancing guidelines. Instead of spending my time working or learning, I was stuck at home, anxious and bored.
I downloaded a fitness tracking app called Lifesum because I wanted to use my newfound free time to start running—something I had hoped would be a good stress reliever and a chance to stop overthinking about the world around me. It would also ensure that I got out of bed, since I no longer had classes or an internship to force me to stick to a schedule.
I thought that the app’s little notifications of praise—“Great job on your two–mile run! Let’s see what you do tomorrow!” or “Great job eating three servings of vegetables!”—would give me the encouragement I needed to stick to my goals. And they did. But they also made me feel incredibly guilty and even angry at myself on the days that I didn’t feel like getting out of bed, let alone jogging around my neighborhood or cooking three servings of vegetables.
At its core, the app wasn't designed to make my life better—it was designed to slowly make itself seem like a necessity. Thankfully, I was able to step back and realize how dangerous this would become for my mental health if I kept using it. I deleted the app and haven’t gone for a run or logged my food intake since. But now that I've left health tracking apps in my past, I’m decidedly less stressed than I was when I had daily notifications reminding me of my “failures.”
Unfortunately, I’m not the only one with a story like this. A survey of 18– to 25–year–olds conducted last year found that “almost half of [the] survey participants indicated that they had experienced some form of negative experiences and behaviors” from healthy eating and fitness apps, usually in the form of maladaptive eating or exercise habits. Users would become so engrossed with the goals they set for themselves—like calorie limits or weight loss targets—that they would heavily restrict their food intake or overexercise to their own detriment. The researchers also found that gamification, or making tracking feel like a challenge with daily goals and notifications, was a key contributor to obsessive use of the app.
Fitness trackers can impact other aspects of mental health too. A 2016 study of women who used Fitbit found that 59% reported feeling like their daily routines were controlled by the device, and almost 30% actually saw the device as "an enemy."
While these apps are marketed as tools to help us be healthier, these studies show how quickly that can spiral into damaging patterns of behavior and make us even less healthy than when we started. Reducing our well–being to a number calculated by our phones rather than how we feel can lead to disastrous consequences for our mental well–being.
The most frustrating part is that this isn’t a problem with users—it's baked into the apps' core functions. Health apps, like most other technology, are designed to keep you coming back. Repeated use equals more ad views, which means more money for the company. Put simply, they don’t care if the app makes your life better—they just care that you keep using it.
The lack of consideration for actual users is clear with period tracking apps. As reporter Kaitlyn Tiffany explains in Vox, “This app wasn’t designed for me. It wasn’t designed for anyone who wants to track their period or general reproductive health. The same is true of almost every menstruation–tracking app: They’re designed for marketers.”
In one case outlined in Vox, the app was unable to compute a user’s pregnancy. Instead, it counted the pregnancy as a “several–hundred–day menstrual cycle” and skewed the predictions of the user's future cycles. In another, the app wouldn’t allow the user to hide the “fertile window” feature, despite the fact that she couldn't become pregnant with her partner.
Similarly, most period tracking apps don’t have great ways of tracking contraception—a problem I discovered when I, like many other people who take birth control, used the pill to skip periods. There was no way to let the app know that this was normal other than going deep into the settings and changing the start date of my current pill pack. Because I didn’t want to deal with the inconvenient task of doing that reset every three weeks, I kept getting notifications like “Your period is late!” or “You might be pregnant!” that were both annoying and untrue. Ultimately, I deleted the app, and I now use the old–fashioned method of pen and paper to keep note of any oddities.
Missing features are inconsiderate, but the most concerning part of these apps’ business models is what happens with the data they collect.
In extreme cases, poor design can put private information at risk. In 2016, a major security flaw was discovered in the period tracking app Glow that would allow “anyone who knew a user’s email address [to] access that person's data." It's a significant breach considering that the app can be used to track menstrual cycles, sexual activity, drinking habits, and contraceptive use.
Even more worrisome, health tracking apps are not regulated by HIPAA, a federal healthy privacy law, the same way that medical professionals are. This means there are virtually no privacy requirements or safety precautions aside from the often–ignored user agreements that pop up when people first download the app. A study conducted by the Federal Trade Commission in 2014 found that many of the major health tracking apps shared their data with third parties like advertising and analytics firms.
So, should you stop using these apps altogether? Not necessarily. If you feel like you gain something from any of these apps, then they can absolutely be worth your time. The key is to be smart about how you use them, and how you let them use you. In case you’re not sure what that means, here are a few recommendations from experts:
Data privacy lawyer Gary Schober told The New York Post that you should opt out of sharing your data with third parties and advertisers, change your phone settings to remove targeted ads, and limit apps’ ability to track your location to when you’re using the app.
Psychotherapist Amy Morin told BBC that people should learn “not to rely on the apps and trust their own judgement instead.” Rather than letting an app tell you when or how much to eat, sleep, or exercise, ignore the number and do what makes you feel good.
Registered dietitian and eating disorder specialist Jessica Setnick told Time that “under almost no circumstances would [she] recommend calorie counting.” Instead, she suggests following internal cues and just enjoying your food rather than assigning a value to it.
The National Eating Disorders Association published a list of apps that actually promote better relationships with body image and food for people in recovery, rather than leading them to spiral back into disordered eating.
Ultimately, we should all take a step back from health and fitness apps every once in a while. Even a short break can force us to reflect on what we really gain from turning our health into a data science project. Some questions to ask yourself: Is my use of this app becoming obsessive or damaging my mental health? Do I rely on the app instead of my body’s signals? Do I continue using the app because it actually benefits me, or just because I feel compelled to by the app’s design?
Having a clearer understanding of how an app adds to your life can be crucial for knowing when to take a break. Instead of allowing yourself to be sucked in by the enticing confetti graphics when you log your eight glasses of water for the day, you’ll know that you’re using the app in a way that is actually good for you—both physically and mentally.
The HELP Line: 215–898–HELP. A 24–hour–a–day phone number for members of the Penn community who seek help in navigating Penn's resources for health and wellness.
Counseling and Psychological Services: 215–898–7021 for weekdays, 215–349–5490 for nights and weekends. The counseling center for the University of Pennsylvania.
Student Health Service: 215-746-3535. Student Health Service can provide medical evaluations and treatment to victims/survivors of eating disorders, regardless of whether they make a report or seek additional resources.
Reach–A–Peer Hotline: 215–573–2727 for calls from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., 215–515–7332 for texting available 24/7. A peer hotline to provide support, information, and referrals to Penn students.