The Personalization – Privacy Paradox of the Meditation App Balance 

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On: September 29, 2019
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Meditation has been practiced for more than 5000 years, but the last decade people have started meditating with the help of their smartphones. With the arrival of the internet people progressively are sharing and seeking help for their mental state online. The stigma around mental health is decreasing and it is becoming more normalized to seek help for one’s mental state. The cultural emphasis on wellness and self-care has increased and meditation apps like Headspace and Calm are becoming more and more popular.

But according to Elevate Labs founder and CEO Jesse Pickard, they can’t replace the experience of working with a human coach. “This experience where you have somebody that meets with you is wildly better than any digital product that is out there,” Pickard said. “The problem is, it’s not affordable to 99% of the planet (TechCrunch).” To solve this problem and give access to the 99%, Elevate Labs launched a new application in September 2019 called Balance, which imitates the experience you would have with a personal coach. The app is free, but to get access to all the library of guided meditation, users have to pay €12,50 per month, €52,99 per year or €229,99 for a lifetime subscription. What makes Balance innovative is that each day users have to answer questions about their meditation experience, goals, and challenges to make a personalized meditation program, instead of letting the user browse through the collection of content like in Headspace and Calm.  Balance’s website indicates “the more you share the more personalized and effective your meditation becomes (Balance).” 

Personalization of Meditation Apps

Balance distinguishes itself from other meditation apps by saying that it focusses on offering personalized meditation. To get a better understanding of the goal of personalization it is important to know how and why it is being used. Personalization is used in the e-commerce and distributes intended messages to specific audiences resulting in users having positive emotions towards the sharing of information with the service providers. With other words personalization is described as delivering “the right content to the right person in the right format at the right time (Lee, Chung Hung and David A. Cranage).” The benefits for the users include convenience, efficiency, individualization and overall a better service that fit users’ needs (Lee, Chung Hung and David A. Cranage). Earning trust is vital for delivering personalized experiences and the app must provide enough value for their users so that users want to share their information. Consequently, when more data is shared the service will become more personalized (Entrepreneur). 

With Balance, the personalization aspect is visible through the daily questions that are asked. If users spend more time on Balance, they have to answer more questions. This results in a more unique and personalized training experience for users. For users who already have experience with meditation, the introductory part is being skipped for example. Furthermore, there is a foundation plan which contains the main goal meditation, but there’s also an option for choosing recommendation. This includes anxiety, relax, sleep and wind down. When choosing the anxious category, the question states “what you’re anxious about”. The user has three options; past events, future events or just generally anxious. Depending on the answer the meditation is further personalized. Personalization depends on the willingness of users to reveal their personal information. This increases the relevance of the product and the interactivity which ultimately results in the user feeling connectedness with the product and that its useful (Entrepreneur). 

Privacy concerns 

Personalization has several advantages for users, but the downside is that it requires users to provide very personal information. The paradox of personalization is that personal information is being tracked, stored and distributed (Entrepreneur). According to The Verge, health apps are sharing health information, that users might want to keep private to third parties. A lot of health apps don’t say exactly what they do with the data (The Verge). Recent Jama studies reported that some of these personal data that has been shared are very sensitive. Information that has been sent to third parties included linkable information, this resulted in that basic information combined with the linkable information caused the third parties to have more data about user’s mental health status (HealthITSecurit). 

In Balance’s privacy policy, they explain what personal data they collect, how they use it and if they share that data. They collect general information, whether you are a student or are retired, but also sensitive information like your mood and other information relevant to your meditation goals (such as degrees of stress, preference for meditation time and other relevant factors). They state that they will share personal data with third parties without further noticing their users. Another important factor is that users can sign-in with Facebook or Google, to get access to Balance. This is a big give-away that they share their data with Facebook and Google. Questions such as “what might third parties do with this vulnerable data” and “with whom might they share it” arise. Will they eventually share your information with insurance companies? Personalization might be useful, but it can also cause harm. According to Agre tracking systems can be used the good and the bad. But the fear is justified because the acquired personal information might be used in an abusive way (Agre). So, although Balance might be innovative because it delivers a very personal meditation, it has the potential to be abused if all that sensitive information lands in the wrong hands. 

References

TechCrunch. 2019. Anthony Ha. 4 September 2019. <https://techcrunch.com/2019/09/04/elevate-labs-launches-balance/>  

Balance. 2019. 4 September 2019. < http://www.balanceapp.com> 

Lee, Chung Hung and David A. Cranage. “Personalisation–privacy paradox: The effects of personalisation and privacy assurance on customer responses to travel Web sites.” Tourism Management 32.5 (2011)

Entrepreneur.2018. Karl Wirth. 22 June 1018 <https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/314611>

The Verge. 2019. Rachel Becker. 20 April 2019. <https://www.theverge.com/2019/4/20/18508382/apps-mental-health-smoking-cessation-data-sharing-privacy-facebook-google-advertising>

HealthITSecurity. 2019. Jessica Davis. 25 April 2019. <https://healthitsecurity.com/news/mental-health-apps-may-share-user-data-without-clear-privacy-policies>

Agre, Philip E. “Surveillance and Capture: Two Models of Privacy.” The Information Society 10.2 (1994): 740-749.

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