A special report on personal technology for health, family and fitness.
My 18-year-old daughter knows exactly when it will be that time of the month. Since June, she’s been plugging the dates of her menstrual cycle into a popular period tracking app called Clue, and has it programmed to send her an alert every month, two days before her next period is due.
“It’s great because I never think about it, and now I never have to think about it,” she said.
Like a lot of young women, my teenager is just too busy. And no, she doesn’t mind being quoted, she said, adding, “Mom: I’m not embarrassed about my period.”
She’s not the only one. Girls and women are openly talking, tweeting and texting about their periods, and not just to Donald Trump. New companies tired of the stigma are selling menstrual products using the “P” word, singers and artists weave menstruation themes into their work, athletes and others have mentioned it on talk shows and at press conferences. Two New York City high school girls developed a video game called “Tampon Run” — the heroine’s mission is “to rid the world of the menstrual taboo.”
Add to this mix period tracker apps, which have helped shift attitudes, demystifying and normalizing menstruation by assigning cute icons to once unmentionables like heavy flow, maxi pads and period pimples. Most important, the apps transform the input into crunchable data that can tell a young woman when her period is due, when it’s late and even why she might be feeling so blue.
There are over 200 different period tracker apps to choose from, and they are immensely popular: consumers have downloadedPeriod Tracker (by GP International) and Period Calendar/Tracker(by Abishkking) more than 10 million times from the Android store alone, according to IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics.
Period tracker apps can track a range of issues related to the menstrual cycle including emotions, cramps, weight, sleep, energy, food cravings and more. They also can record when you had sex (Clue’s icon for protected sex is a man wearing a tie) or remind you to pack tampons, take your birth control pill or do a breast exam, all information women say is both empowering and liberating. Some apps are pink and girlie, all hearts and flowers and butterflies; others take a more subtle approach with lots of graphs in muted shades of purple. Specialized apps have even been developed for niche groups like Orthodox Jewish women who adhere to religious family purity laws. The apps say they are “rabbinically approved.”
“When you see a technology that someone has developed specifically for you as a woman, it really legitimizes talking about your periods and thinking about them,” said Shuangyi “E.E.” Hou, 24, a product designer in San Francisco for apps and websites who has used a period tracker app for over a year. “If we as a society say women should be checking in on their periods, and we give them permission to talk about it, I’m convinced it will be beneficial for women’s health.”
While the apps also can be used to track ovulation, signaling the days the user is more or less likely to become pregnant, most period tracker apps explicitly warn users not to rely on them to prevent pregnancy. The ovulation tracker and fertility prediction can be helpful for a woman trying to conceive, but it can give a false sense of security to a woman who relies on the app as a form of birth control.
That’s because even the most vigilant ovulation tracking methods have shockingly high failure rates, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, with up to one in four women becoming pregnant over the course of a year with typical use.
“Apps are a tool; they’re not actually a birth control method,” said Hannah Ransom of San Diego, a certified fertility awareness educator.
But many users of period tracker apps rely on them to help schedule their busy lives or for tracking health conditions that fluctuate with their cycle, rather than contraception. Aliya, a 23-year-old from the Bronx, said she uses Pink Pad Pro to schedule social outings like visits to a Russian bath house and to give her doctor an accurate answer to the inevitable question about the date of her last menstrual period (though she admitted relying on it occasionally for birth control as well).
One college theater student said she always forgets about her period during the week or two before a production, when there are a million other details to think about, so she likes the push notification reminders from Period Tracker Lite.
Ida Tin, who founded Clue, one of the fastest growing period tracker apps with 2 million active users in 180 countries, said her motivation in developing the app was to provide women with more information and greater understanding about a “foundational” part of their lives for 40 years.
“If you just have the data about what is going on in your body,” said Ms. Tin, “It’s a navigating tool for your life.”