The internet has changed how kids learn about sex, but sex ed in the classroom still sucks. In Sex Ed 2.0, Mashable explores the state of sex ed and imagines a future where digital innovations are used to teach consent, sex positivity, respect, and responsibility.
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My period has always been something of a mystery.
For months at a time it will arrive as expected like clockwork, then it vanishes for what seems like an eternity, and on far less pleasant occasions, it has lasted for as long as 45 days thanks to birth control complications.
My period’s irregularities made period tracking apps so alluring to me when I first heard of them years ago. The idea of charting your period to the degree that you can predict when you’re most likely to PMS, or when you should be well stocked with tampons, seemed like the perfect way to figure this whole menstruation thing out once and for all.
I’ve been tracking my period off and on since 2015, and what I’ve learned from my period tracker app put my fairly progressive New York City health classes from high school to shame.
These apps, while not perfect, are teaching many like myself more about menstrual cycles than sex ed ever did — or could.
While the apps are by no means meant to replace sex ed, they can be helpful tools, especially when it comes to topics that sex ed tends to skip over.
What even is a period tracking app?
A period tracking app, is quite literally an app that tracks periods, well, really the menstrual cycle as a whole. They offer those who use them the ability to track a multitude of period symptoms, from fatigue to acne, in addition to the level of their flow — spotting, light, medium, or heavy — and their period’s length.
It’s estimated that 200 million people have downloaded period tracking apps, according to the BBC. And the “femtech” market is expected to reach $50 billion by 2025, consulting firm Frost & Sullivan told Elle.
Period trackers can teach users about PCOS, endometriosis, and other lesser-known health issues
Delia Howe, who uses the Flo app to track her period, told me through a direct message on Twitter that Flo’s helpful articles and resources helped her discover that she has endometriosis. The gynecologic disorder can cause painful periods and long-lasting cramps, and often is not taught in sex ed, much like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which has similar symptoms.
“Sex ed told me periods hurt, that pain is normal. My tracker showed me that in fact it wasn’t normal,” Howe said.
Many women like Howe are learning about these conditions for the first time thanks to their period tracking apps.
“Sex ed told me periods hurt, that pain is normal. My tracker showed me that in fact it wasn’t normal.”
Representatives at Clue, Dot, and Eve explained that their apps are designed to send health alerts to users if any unusual symptoms or patterns are detected. None of the apps make a diagnosis, but they do urge users to have a medical professional look at their collected data.
Clue, Eve, and Glow inform users if they have symptoms that closely resemble endometriosis and PCOS.
“We’ve seen about 10 percent of our users have been alerted for possible signs of endometriosis, which isn’t necessarily surprising, considering the incidents of endometriosis in the general population is about 10 percent,” Jennifer Tye, the COO of Glow said.
Tye also recalled a woman who reached out to Glow to let them know that after using the app for three months she was alerted that she had signs of PCOS, something she suspected she had for years but her inklings had been dismissed by healthcare providers. After turning up to the doctor’s office with the data saved on her period tracker she was finally given the diagnosis she knew she had all along.
Another woman was able to identify the early symptoms of a Malignant Mixed Mullerian Tumor, thanks to Clue, Amanda Cormier an editor of Clue’s website said.
“Before tracking it was hard to show or prove that you had these issues,” Cormier said. “But the data that users show to their doctors actually convinces them to take tests. It’s a way for people that experience cycles to advocate for themselves. It’s proof that the pain is real.”
Personalized data teaches people about the nuances of menstruation
In most sex ed classes you’re taught basic scientific facts about menstruation: it’s a 28-day cycle, you menstruate once a month for seven to 10 days, and yeah you may be cranky the week before. That’s about it.
According to period tracker app representatives, nearly all of their users were unaware of how normal it is for a menstrual cycle to exist outside of the 28-day cycle.
“We have had cases where people didn’t know their cycles were irregular, and on the flip side I would say sometimes people think their cycles are super irregular because their cycle is off by maybe a few days difference in length,” Leslie Heyer, one of the Dot app creators, said.
While cycles generally waver between 21 and 35 days, it’s not uncommon for their length to vary, and they can even change on a monthly basis.
Mary Gallagher, a certified midwife nurse in Portland, Oregon told me she encourages all of her patients to use the Clue app to keep track of their periods because most people have no idea what’s going on when it comes to their menstrual cycles.
Gallagher also said the app is good for tracking numerous symptoms of PMS, and it’s a “really helpful tool that helps embody and encompass all of these aspects of women’s health that we ignore when we just talk about periods.”
Marshall — a regular user of the Clue app who asked that her last name not be included — echoed Gallagher’s sentiments and said learning more about her PMS symptoms and when she can expect them has been one of the most helpful features of the app.
“I’ve been taking care to track my PMS symptoms as soon as possible and my PMS cloud completely eclipses the whole cycle,” Marshall said. “And what I’ve learned is that I’m actually experiencing PMS for most of my cycle.”
Users actually learn about fertility, not just how to avoid pregnancy
Sex ed is often focused on how to avoid getting pregnant or getting someone pregnant. Young women are taught that they can get pregnant at any point during their cycle — but this is not the case, according to the trackers.
This is not to say that the widely criticized “rhythm method” is an ideal form of birth control. The app Natural Cycles which follows this method was severely chastised after it caused 37 unintended pregnancies. But most women are more likely to conceive within a slim window of time during a menstrual cycle known as ovulation.
While there is a good chance you could get pregnant right after your period, getting pregnant during your period is highly unlikely, according to Parents. Truly the best time to conceive is when you’re ovulating, and this generally occurs 14 days before your next period.
“I understand why adults share that [pregnancy can happen any time] and why kids get that message, and I think from using fertility apps and particularly with Dot we’ve heard from a lot of people who said, you know I can’t believe no one explained this to me, or that I didn’t understand that there’s only a certain period of time during my cycle where I can get pregnant,” Heyer, the Dot co-creator, said.
The problem with withholding this general information about fertility and conception reveals itself later in life when people with cycles attempt to get pregnant and find it to be a more difficult process than they were led to believe.
“When we would talk to lots of women who were trying to conceive, our users were telling us all that they were taught in sex ed was how not to get pregnant and that meant that for the most part was don’t have unprotected sex,” Tye said.
Where they fall short
A number of health care professionals have said that period tracking apps aren’t truly reliable predictors of menstrual cycles and have warned users to be wary. According to a 2017 University of Washington study that surveyed 687 people and looked at 2,000 app reviews, period tracking apps — that include Clue, Eve, Glow, Period Tracker and Period Pad — mainly serve women that have a regular cycle, but aren’t as useful to women with irregular cycle patterns.
Period tracking apps have also been criticized for being too pink, pushing traditional gender norms, and using heteronormative language, according to Motherboard. Clue and Spot On have made an effort to use more inclusive language to represent trans men, among others, but they’re still not free of critique.
Then there’s the debate about whether the apps should be able to share private data. Chupadados, a Brazillian tech site, reported that data from a number of apps, including Glow and the apps that fall under its umbrella (Eve, Glow Nurture, and Glow Baby) can sell user data to third party companies (like advertisers), when users agree to its terms and conditions. Aware of this problem, Clue pledged to never release private user data to a third party.
Despite the issues facing period tracking apps, they still stand to provide users with a wealth of information.
Which period trackers contain the most information?
After testing four of the most recommended period apps based on reviews from Cosmopolitan, Bustle, and Wired: Clue, Spot On (Planned Parenthood’s period tracking app), Dot, and Eve, I found each app had slightly different platforms, but they all had the ability to log symptoms of PMS, period lengths, discharge types, sleep, and frequency of sex. They were all fairly intuitive and easy to use, but Spot On and Clue provided users with the most valuable information.
Spot On, makes it easy to answer any sex or reproductive questions you can think of, and users can even arrange to live chat with a sex educator. Clue provides similarly useful information on a wide scope of topics.
While Eve provides a lot of useful information in the form of pop-up factoids and quizzes, I felt that its community section, where all users are free to discuss ailments and personal issues, was a little confusing. Sure, community is important, but there are enough forums and blogs that spread misinformation online — why create another space for it?
Dot is a useful tool if your main concern when tracking your period is, well, tracking your period. Other than that you’ll find little information to broaden your sexual or reproductive knowledge.
Period apps can’t replace sex ed, but they can add to it
Ideally, women, men, and everyone in between should learn about the many complexities of menstruation in their general sex ed classes, but the reality is it’s unlikely that will ever happen.
Karin Coyle, chief science officer at ETR — a research, training, and education development non-profit that focuses on subjects like sexual and reproductive health, in addition to smoking, drugs, and wellness in schools — told me that with so much content to deliver to students in such limited time, it’s doubtful that any classroom could cover as much nuanced-ground as a period tracker. But, Coyle said she feels that using a tracker to enhance or build on what’s learned in the classroom can be an effective and positive tool.
“If you have an app like this that prioritizes education it may be the most broad and deep sex ed some people ever have.”
“I think when there’s these other tools that allow you to dive in and learn about your body, as long as they are very up front about their limitations, what they are and what they’re not, then I think it’s a great way to enhance and learn more, and reflect more on your body as an individual,” Coyle said.
Tracker apps can also be a valuable resource for people without significant access to sex ed.
“It can provide an early diagnosis, and it can be a sex ed resource for people who don’t have access to it,” Clue’s Cormier said.
While the efficacy of using period apps to accurately predict your period and thwart pregnancy continues to be debated, it’s clear that period trackers have the ability to teach users significant lessons about menstruation, women’s health, and their bodies.