This year, Mel Turnage decided to stop self-harming. Finding an easy-to-use "habit-tracking" app so she could log how often she cut herself was a priority, she said. The app's data privacy practices came second.
"I've already sort of bared my entire life to the internet," said Turnage, who's 22 and in graduate school studying film in Orlando. "I figured: What's one more thing?"
Whether you're trying to drink more water, call your mom every week or break a harmful cycle, a habit app could help keep you accountable. Thanks to the psychological power of journaling and a broad interest in self-optimization, the popularity of habit-tracking apps has been rising steadily the past two years, according to analytics firm Sensor Tower. As 2023 approaches and Americans make New Year's resolutions, habit apps could see an influx of valuable data about our daily lives and health concerns.
Worries about privacy are a top reason people with substance-use disorders don't get treatment, according to a 2020 survey from the Department of Health and Human Services. But some of the top-downloaded habit-tracking apps - including those that track sobriety - leave room in their privacy policies to share data liberally with third-party companies.
"Any information about self-care might on the surface seem innocuous, but when you aggregate it all together, it tells a story that could be used against you," said Adam Schwartz, a senior staff attorney at the privacy rights nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Once our data flies into the digital ad ecosystem, it's tough to track where it ends up. Researchers, advertisers, criminals, insurers and employers could all benefit from information about our health concerns, and laws such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act give Americans little protection when that information gets shared in digital environments, Schwartz said.
The Washington Post examined the cost, ease of use and privacy policies of 11 popular habit-tracking and sobriety apps. Here's what to know before downloading.
The best habit-tracking apps
For the price and privacy, Streaks from developer Crunchy Bagel is the best of the bunch.
Streaks is a simple habit-tracker where you can log behaviors and view progress over days, weeks or months. The only charge is $4.99 up front, and the setup process is fast and minimal.
Best of all, Streaks says it doesn't share data with sketchy third parties. Johnny Lin, founder of anti-tracking company Lockdown Privacy, used a tool that intercepts internet traffic to view the app's behavior behind the scenes. Lin said not only is Streaks not sending data to advertising companies, it's not regularly collecting any data if you don't turn on iCloud backups in the app's settings. While the app's policy leaves room to share data with a service that reports app crashes, Lin's findings indicate Streaks takes your privacy seriously.
For a habit-tracker that's easy to use, try Strides from developer Goals LLC. The interface is limited but clear, and you can add more habits and view progress reports for $29.99 a year. If you stay on the app's free tier and avoid setting up an account, the company says it will store your data on your device. (That's good for privacy, as the data doesn't get beamed to cloud storage.) CEO Kyle Richey said the app never shares data with advertising or marketing companies.
If you're looking for a sobriety-tracking app, choose I Am Sober, which costs $39.99 a year. Unlike some of its competitors, I Am Sober doesn't collect your location. It also says it doesn't share data with advertising or marketing companies. (It does, however, use Google for its analytics. CEO Andrew Murray said the company is working to remove Google tools from the app completely.)
Will these apps really help me break old habits or start new ones?
Tracking behavior helps break and establish habits, said Dana Litt, an associate professor of health behavior at the University of North Texas, but research on the effectiveness of app-based tools is still emerging.
Some apps go beyond simple habit-logging. Reframe from developer Glucobit ($119.99 a year) comes with educational modules and homework assignments for people looking to reduce or eliminate their alcohol consumption. The app Fabulous ($59.99 a year) also offers learning modules for "managing addiction." Be careful, though. Both apps have relatively permissive privacy policies, and many people suffering from addiction require personalized treatment in a clinical setting.
Some studies have shown that internet-based interventions can help people reduce their alcohol consumption, said Stanford psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor Keith Humphreys. The effectiveness often depends on the severity of the person's overuse, he noted.
Fabulous co-founder and CEO Sami Ben Hassine said the app is not a replacement for counseling, but it can help people grow, measure their progress and regulate their emotions. Reframe CEO Vedant Pradeep said the app is an additional resource and does not replace professional medical advice or treatment.
What makes a trustworthy health or habit-tracking app?
People have different expectations for privacy and ease of use. If you're evaluating habit apps on your own, look out for these best (and worst) practices.
First, a habit app probably doesn't need your location. Productive, Reframe and Me+ all leave room in their privacy policies to collect your location, and Habit Tracker from developer Davetech explicitly asks for location permission when you set up the app.
Second, a habit app shouldn't ask for more data than it needs. Productive, Reframe and Fabulous all come with elaborate onboarding questionnaires seeking highly personal information. While those questions might help tailor your app experience, they also create privacy risks.
Last, a habit app should minimize the data it shares with third parties. Lockdown's Lin observed Reframe and Fabulous communicating with multiple advertising companies, he said. DayCount, Me+ and Productive also leave room in their privacy policies to share data with outside marketers and advertisers.
Productive didn't directly respond to questions about its privacy practices. Reframe said it uses advertising partners to measure app retention and return on advertising investment and doesn't share information about user behavior. Me+ did not respond to a request for comment. DayCount said it only shares user data with a Google ad tool if the user opts in. Habit Tracker could not be reached for comment. Fabulous said its long onboarding makes users more likely to stick with the program. It didn't immediately respond to a question about its third-party data sharing with advertisers.