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Reviewing and evaluating the functionalities of top-rated mobile apps for depression

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal article

Forthcoming
<mark>Journal publication date</mark>7/11/2019
<mark>Journal</mark>JMIR Mental Health
Issue numberSpecial Issue 2019: Computing and Mental Health
Publication statusAccepted/In press
Original languageEnglish

Abstract

Background: In the last decade, there has been a proliferation of mobile apps claiming to support the needs of people living with depression. However, it is unclear what functionality apps for depression actually provide and for whom they are intended.

Objective: This paper aims to explore the key features of top-rated apps for depression, including descriptive characteristics, functionality, and ethical concerns in order to support better-informed design of apps for depression.

Methods: We reviewed top-rated iOS and Android mobile apps for depression retrieved from app marketplaces in spring 2019. We applied a systematic analysis to review the selected apps, for which data was gathered from the two marketplaces, and through direct use of the apps. We report an in-depth analysis of app functionality, namely: screening, tracking, and provision of interventions. Of the initially identified 482 apps, 29 apps met the criteria for inclusion in this review. Apps were included if they remained accessible at the moment of evaluation, were offered in mental health relevant categories, received a review score greater than 4.0 out of 5.0 contributed by more than 100 reviewers, and have depression as a primary target.

Results: The analysis revealed that a majority of apps specify the evidence-base for their intervention (62%, 18/29) while a smaller proportion describe receiving clinical input into their design (41%, 12/29). All selected apps are rated as suitable for children and adolescents on the marketplace, but 83% (24/29) do not provide a privacy policy consistent with their rating. Findings also show that most apps provide multiple functions. The most commonly implemented functions include provision of interventions (83%, 24/29) either as digitalized therapeutic intervention or as support for mood expression, tracking (66%, 19/29) of moods, thoughts or behaviors for supporting the intervention, and screening (31%, 9/29) to inform the decision to use the app and its intervention. Some apps include overtly negative content.

Conclusions: Currently available top-ranked apps for depression on the major marketplaces provide diverse functionality to benefit users across a range of age groups, however guidelines and frameworks are still needed to ensure users’ privacy and safety while using them. Suggestions include clearly defining the age of the target population and explicit disclosure of the sharing of users’ sensitive data with third parties. Additionally, we found an opportunity for apps to better leverage digital affordances for mitigating harm, for personalizing interventions, and for tracking multimodal content. The study further demonstrates the need to consider potential risks while using depression apps, including the use of non-validated screening tools, tracking negative moods or thinking patterns, and exposing users to negative emotional expression content.