Smartphones have completely changed how we live, thanks to the endless number of apps available for them. There's an app for everything! But beneath the glossy surface of this seemingly benign ecosystem, there's a niche of sketchy mental health apps, which have proliferated unchecked and unregulated. It's a big problem. A report from Nature investigates the dangers of downloading mental health apps that contain inaccurate information. There are horror stories about a bipolar app that instructs users to drink hard liquor to sleep better, while another suggests that the disorder is contagious. Even when researchers analysed software endorsed by bonafide health organisations, like the UK's National Health Service, more than half of the apps tested were not considered safe. To make matters worse, many of the apps transmitted unencrypted personal information.
Making scientifically accurate apps is very challenging, according to Nature. For one, apps that aren't full of lies tend to be less engaging than their less factually rigorous competition. They also take longer to develop, which means that when they're finally ready for launch, their design is often already dated.
Despite the fact that most mental health apps are garbage, some shining examples do exist, including the insomnia app Sleepio, and PTSD Coach, an app developed by the US Department of Veteran Affairs to help former soldiers deal with trauma.
In the short term, there is no solution except for common sense. Double check to see exactly who built the app you're using, and where the information within comes from. You health could depend on it.
Illustration Tara Jacoby