Becky Freeman: Is an iPhone good for your health?

Becky FreemanUnless you intentionally block out all pop culture and media from your life, you’ve likely seen more than your fair share of Apple promotions. From the dancing silhouettes in iPod ads, to laptop product placement in tv and film, and the overhyped media launches, much has been written about the marketing prowess of Apple and its founder and CEO, Steve Jobs.

That marketing magic also rubs off on the external companies that have enthusiastically embraced Apple’s open application developer program. For the uninitiated, iPhone users can install a dizzying array of “apps” to increase the utility (or entertainment value) of their phones. The vast majority of these apps have been created by external developers and are being sold or given away for free through the App Store on iTunes.  The App store has only been open since July 2008, but as of January 2010 it already contains more than 140,000 apps and collectively users have downloaded more than 3 billion apps.

Health and lifestyle apps are among the most popular to both purchase and download for free. Having trouble sleeping? There’s an app for that. How about an app that tracks your diet and calories consumed? Check. New Year’s resolution was to quit smoking – there are more than fifty apps to help you break the habit. You can even install interactive medical reference texts and self diagnose that strange looking freckle.

While this may sound quite health promoting and rather innocuous, digging a bit deeper reveals a distinct lack of evidence supporting the mythical claims of some of these apps. An app to teach you self hypnosis as the essential key to quitting smoking is one of the more laughable claims. Although, it only costs a few dollars, so some may argue there’s no real harm. Of bigger concern are health and lifestyle apps that do not reveal the underlying app sponsor. For example, a guide to maximising your nutrition suspiciously seems to be sponsored by a vitamin and supplement company. Consumers may think they are installing health affirming apps but really they are getting little more than ads for products they don’t need.

Of course there are also apps that arguably perpetuate public health problems. There are dozens of “drinking game” apps – which have a “must be 17 years old to download due to frequent/intense alcohol, tobacco or drug use” disclaimer. How, or if, this policy is enforced isn’t entirely clear. Or how about this charming free app, which is currently ranked in the top 100 free apps of all time, “iPee drunk”? The instructions state: “Hold your iPhone against your hips. The iPee drunk is a fun and addictive game that simulates a drunk toilet visit…In the final level you have had a virtual vodka bottle.”

If you reminisce for the days when concerts goers held up cigarette lighters during rock ballads, Zippo has developed a virtual lighter you can install in your iPhone and proudly wave above your head. Is this a harmless bit of fun or an attempt to reinvigorate the decidedly passé cigarette lighter by associating it with modern technology?

As politicians grapple with whether to restrict the marketing practices of the three most common causes of preventable illness, tobacco, unhealthy food, and alcohol, it seems these industries are several steps ahead and are already reaching consumers outside of traditional advertising.

Becky Freeman is an avid iPhone user and has a phone full of highly useful apps. She is a researcher and PhD candidate at the School of Public Health, University of Sydney.