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Depressed or Anxious? There Might Not Be an App for That After All

A new massive review of scientific evidence suggests that mental health apps aren’t as effective as we hoped — not yet at least

Are you depressed? Don’t worry, there’s an app for that. Anxiety? Yes, that too. ADHD? Panic disorder? Addiction? Yes, yes and yes. 

And yet, despite the ubiquity of mental health apps, when researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison started digging around the available data to inform the development of their meditation app, they found a glaring problem: Even with a growing number of clinical trials and studies on mental health apps, evidence of their effectiveness doesn’t hold up. 

“We failed to find convincing evidence in support of any mobile phone-based intervention on any outcome,” concludes the new research published in PLOS Digital Health. This included mental health apps for mood tracking and meditation, text-based support messaging and addiction-related support. While this may sound like a bleak forecast for a budding $4.2 billion industry, lead author Simon Goldberg told STAT he believes his team’s findings were more a symptom of a nascent industry, rather than a hopeless one. “I would bet the farm that if you wait five years and people keep running these trials, there will be convincing evidence,” he explained.

Goldberg and his fellow researchers conducted a review of 14 meta-analyses that included 145 trials with nearly 50,000 participants, but they didn’t scrutinize any individual apps or name any tech products directly in their study. However, in the studies cited in the reference section of their paper, examples of the products examined included mood-tracking apps like Mood Log and How Are You?, meditation apps like Wildflowers and Headspace and smoking-cessation apps like Text2Quit

None of the app interventions reached the high scientific standard of “convincing evidence,” which meant that the studies had ample sample sizes, other therapeutic interventions used for comparison or a demonstrated absence of publication bias, among other factors. That said, some of the apps did show “highly suggestive” evidence — i.e., there was some data to support that they were effective, but “the magnitude of effects and strength of evidence tended to diminish as comparison conditions became more rigorous,” study authors wrote. 

Again, Goldberg and his colleagues don’t name which apps these are specifically. They did note, though, that text-based smoking-cessation apps appear to show the most promise, and “there was some indication that meditation apps may be particularly helpful for depression,” Goldberg clarifies in an email. Still, the results weren’t statistically significant enough to sway the overall findings. 

Nonetheless, Goldberg remains positive about the results of his team’s review. “For me, the main takeaway is a general sense of encouragement that a variety of mobile phone-based interventions including smartphone apps appear to produce small to moderate benefits,” he tells me. 

So, do you have anxiety that you’ve been using pointless mental health apps? Maybe there will be an app for that sometime soon, too.