A new study published in JAMA Network Open found that a majority of mental health and wellness apps surveyed distribute users' personal data to commercial third parties like Facebook and Google without explicitly informing users.
Researchers from the University of New South Wales Sydney, the Sydney-based Black Dog Institute, and the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center's Department of Psychiatry in Boston examined 36 apps for depression and smoking cessation that was highest ranked in the iOS and Android app stores in early 2018. Results show that 33 of the programs transmitted user data to Facebook, Google or other entities for advertising or analytical purposes, but only 12 fully disclosed this practice to users.
Just 23 of the surveyed apps incorporated privacy policies mentioning that data would be transmitted to a third party, and many of those fail to explicitly describe how the data will be used, and by which third parties.
According to the study's authors, despite the mental health benefits of these and similar apps, the lack of disclosure "may limit their ability to offer effective guidance to consumers and health care professionals," who would likely prefer to know whether and how their personal health information is accessed by advertising and analytical firms.
Persons with mental health issues are extremely vulnerable to lack of privacy issues. While there are HIPAA protections as to de-identifying data the marketing of pharmaceutical information or devices to this group of vulnerable individuals deserves scrutiny.
The non-disclosure of the use of data is highly irresponsible and deserves universal condemnation.
There are apps for depression, anxiety, meditation, and mindfulness, as well as cognitive behavioral therapy Virtual Reality applications, are being promoted and used by behavioral therapists. Most reviews are testimonials by persons using the smartphone app and not a professional evaluation. Significant time has not elapsed for good peer-reviewed analysis.
Furthermore, self-diagnosis can be dangerous for some mental health disorders. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Prior to using any of the apps, one should consult with an experienced mental health provider who has experience using apps and/or virtual reality.
Several sources are referenced below:
The use of Virtual Reality for treatment of a mental disorder. Much of these treatments could lead to worsening of some conditions such as hallucinations, and schizophrenia. The VR experience can be depersonalizing which could exacerbate other conditions. The outcome of a combination of psychotropics and VR is unknown.
Both practitioners and patients must be informed about these dangers. Manufacturers of the hardware devices and software should be required to provide this information to users.
The buyer should remember caveat emptor.