This blog post discusses findings from a peer-reviewed article titled: “What criteria are young people using to select mobile mental health applications? A nominal group study” published in Digital Health (2022, paper here).
Mental health apps: more accessible mental health support
According to the World Health Organization, as many as one in seven children and teenagers aged 10-19 experience mental health disorders (1). Despite the prevalence of mental health issues in this group, access to professional diagnosis and treatment remains low. As a result, children and teenagers are turning to smartphone applications to support their mental wellbeing. When young people search for apps to support their mental health in general or to address a specific problem, such as anxiety, they are faced with an overwhelming number of options.
How to pick a mental health app?
The smartphone applications available on platforms such as Google Play or App Store are evaluated based on general user experience or satisfaction, usually on a 1 to 5-star rating scale. This system results in apps being suggested based on popularity, rather than the content of the app or its effectiveness in addressing mental health concerns. While some mental health interventions delivered by apps are developed based on evidence, most of the apps on the market are not supported by science. Additionally, there is no regulatory oversight to prevent apps from promoting potentially harmful interventions, making false claims, or mishandling user data (2,3). Based on a search from 2016, only 2.6% of apps make effectiveness claims that are supported in any way (4). The high number of available apps combined with only popularity-based rankings make it difficult to choose apps that are safe and effective.
Young people’s criteria for selecting mental health apps
Since selecting mental health support apps is challenging, the Neuroscience Engagement and Smart Tech (NEST) lab at Neuroethics Canada, in collaboration with Foundry BC, set out to develop a tool that would make it easier to select an app that is best suited to user’s circumstances. A tool that is helpful to young people has to align with their needs and priorities. Thus, we conducted a series of nominal group meetings to identify the criteria that are important to young people when they select mental health apps. The infographic below summarizes the criteria that emerged in discussions with 47 young people aged 15-25 in four towns in British Columbia, Canada. These criteria will inform the development of an app-selection tool that will combine end-user priorities with expert input.
The future of mental health support
As mental health apps continue to increase in popularity, so does the diversity and complexity of the features they offer. For example, some mobile applications offer access to healthcare professionals via video or chat but may also use AI chat bots to provide help or counselling. As we uncovered in the nominal groups, young people want the apps to provide links to community services that are available in their area and allow users to share the information that the apps collect with their health care team. As such, it is critically important to identify the priorities of end-users to guide the ethical usage of this innovative form of mental health support.
- Adolescent mental health [Internet]. [cited 2022 Dec 16]. Available from: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/adolescent-mental-health
- Anthes E. Mental health: There’s an app for that. Nature News. 2016 Apr 7;532(7597):20.
- Robillard JM, Feng TL, Sporn AB, Lai JA, Lo C, Ta M, et al. Availability, readability, and content of privacy policies and terms of agreements of mental health apps. Internet Interventions. 2019 Sep 1;17:100243.
- Larsen ME, Nicholas J, Christensen H. Quantifying App Store Dynamics: Longitudinal Tracking of Mental Health Apps. JMIR mHealth and uHealth. 2016 Aug 9;4(3):e6020.