The Digital Dilemma: Privacy Risks in Mental Health Apps and Websites

A phone with apps
Data privacy

Unveiling the Statistics

In the digital age, technology has become an integral part of our lives, offering convenience, accessibility, and assistance in various aspects, including mental health support. However, a recent survey conducted by NordVPN, a popular VPN (virtual private network) provider, highlights concerning insight regarding mental and physical health app/website users. 


The survey, which encompassed “12,726 internet users from 13 countries across four continents”, aimed to explore the effects of technology in the mental health health sphere – specifically websites and applications.


However, the results surrounding American consumers were the most surprising.  Shockingly, the results indicated that a staggering 80% of Americans employ technology to support their emotional health. Although this displays an overarching acceptance towards emotional and physical health (something that, until recently,  was seen as taboo), it also revealed an alarming insight. 


The Surprising American Revelation 

When looking at the United States specifically, the survey shows that one-third of Americans, or 36%, utilize their smartphones for tracking activities like water consumption, sleep patterns, and exercise routines. These habits can certainly contribute to an improved lifestyle. 


Adrianus Warmenhoven, a cybersecurity expert at NordVPN, said, “Our survey showed that more than half of American health app users provide health information to the apps, such as blood pressure, eating habits, weight, and medical conditions. This also includes mental health data, such as that about moods, habits, and even thoughts.” 


However, when looking deeper, the study reveals that  four-out-of-five individuals who use mental health apps, opt for free and unsecured options. This means that sensitive information about one’s emotional and mental states, along with thoughts (journaling) and habits (water consumption or meditation practices) are being stored on platforms that lack sufficient privacy measures – storing this information can potentially put the user at risk. 


Data Privacy Lapse 

An additional alarming discovery is that a staggering 90% of mental health apps fail to meet minimum privacy standards, as highlighted by a recent report. Furthermore, in March of 2023 the US Federal Trade Commission fined a digital healthcare platform, BetterHelp, $7.8 million for compromising users’ private data by sharing it with third parties. The privacy risks are not solely due to the negligence of  app developers. The survey revealed that only one-third of US respondents prioritize privacy policies when selecting mental health apps. This suggests that a substantial majority are oblivious to where their data could end up and be exploited against them.


The survey showcased the variety of technology used by Americans to manage their emotional well-being. A staggering 97% of respondents use technology as a means of unwinding or relaxing, with 80% employing their devices as mental health tools. Activities like listening to soothing music and engaging in meaningful conversations with friends and family through messaging apps are popular means of finding emotional support.


Understanding the Privacy Risks 

Despite the concerns surrounding data privacy, the study illustrated that a significant 79% of Americans prefer free mental health apps over paid alternatives. Although choosing free apps isn’t inherently problematic, users often exchange personal data for these services, which may be sold to third-party companies for advertising purposes.


Warmenhoven emphasizes, “Data like this can be used to create detailed user profiles containing sensitive information that could potentially be used to discriminate against someone or exclude them, like by denying them insurance or job opportunities based on their physical or mental health.” To ensure data security when using mental health apps, Warmenhoven offers a few key recommendations, including  using a disposable email address, conducting research on the data an app collects, avoiding obscure looking apps and only providing essential information required by the app.


While technology has opened new avenues for emotional well-being support, it’s crucial for users to be aware of the potential privacy risks associated with their choices. The survey underscores the importance of informed decision-making and privacy awareness to guard sensitive information in an increasingly digitized world.