JMIR2

By Chengcheng Qu

Mobile apps have huge potential to scale up the delivery of depression treatments, however, actions need to be taken for regulating such apps to protect users, especially children or adolescents.

These are the findings of a recent AffecTech study [3], which took a closer look at 29 highest ranked depression apps: albeit all of the evaluated apps claimed to be suitable for non-adult users in the download page, not all of them are suitable or designed for such an age group.

Children using apps that are not appropriate for their age may face several risks. For instance, the study found some apps provide depression related content that may provoke negative emotions, and consuming such content without parental guidance may trigger risky behaviour such as self-harm [2].

Clearer Standards Required For Mental Health Apps

Researchers thus called for clearer standards from major marketplaces, such as Google and Apple, and greater regulation to safeguard users using mental health apps. For example, Google specifies that their age rating is not for describing the apps’ target user group but rather for describing the minimum maturity level of content in apps such as violence, drugs, and profane language [1]. Such age rating information may be misleading parents when they are selecting apps for their children.

Additionally, researchers also found inconsistent privacy stratgies. More specifically, even though most apps are rated as suitable for children, more than half of the apps do not provide privacy policies regarding how they would protect children’s data. Thus, children users may face the risk of getting their data exposed or sold to third-parties or advertisement companies.

Users should be informed upfront of the risks while downloading depression apps, say the researchers, and marketplaces could be more aware of their responsibilities in ensuring consistency of privacy-related infromation. This could be achieved by insisting clear communication and consistency of app related information, by comparing the app description on the marketplace and its privacy policy listed within the app before releasing the app on the marketplaces.

[1] Apps & Games content ratings on Google Play – Google Play Help: https://support.google.com/googleplay/answer/6209544?hl=en-GB. Accessed: 2019-10-27.
[2] Collings SC, Fortune S, Steers D, Currey N, Hawton K, et al. 2011. Media influences on suicidal behaviour: An interview study of young people. Auckland, New Zealand: Te Pou o Te Whakaaro Nui, The National Centre of Mental Health Research, Information and Workforce Development. (2011).
[3] Qu, C., Sas, C., Daudén Roquet, C. and Doherty, G. 2020. Functionality of Top-Rated Mobile Apps for Depression: Systematic Search and Evaluation. JMIR Mental Health. 7, 1 (2020), e15321. DOI: https://doi.org/10.2196/15321.

The research [3] featured in this article has been supported by AffecTech: Personal Technologies for Affective Health, Innovative Training Network funded by the H2020 People Programme under Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement number 722022.