Feelin’ down? Better think twice about that mental health app you downloaded.

Photo (c) Brian A. Jackson - Getty Images

Does AI have a place with mental health apps? Hmm...

Loneliness, sadness, depression, anxiety – Google searches for these terms are off the chart.

It’s not because it’s Mental Health Month either, although that would be a nice excuse. Ever since COVID-19 strode into the U.S., everyone has been affected: 86% of teens, who knows how many senior citizens, even the Surgeon General says there’s an epidemic of sadness and loneliness.

And, since we live in a time where an app can do anything, well, why not let an app get us all out of our funk?

Despite a mental health app’s good intentions, Mozilla’s latest *Privacy Not Included study shows mental health apps are failing to protect user privacy and security – a factor that could make us wring our hands even more if a hacker gets possession of our private information and starts leveraging it to their benefit.

Fifty-nine percent of the top apps studied were given *Privacy Not Included warning labels, while 40% have gotten worse over the last year.

'I’ll be your very best friend…'

Of concern to Mozilla’s researchers were the apps that pretend to want to cuddle up with a user a little too much.  They found many apps that were jam-full of tracking code, with the app Cerebral installing 799 trackers onto a person’s phone within the first minute of download. 

There were also apps that wasted no time collecting information – before even asking for consent. The researchers said that Talkspace, Happify, and BetterHelp all pushing consumers into taking questionnaires up front without asking for their permission or showing their privacy policies first.

One app that freaked out Mozilla’s team was, what else but an AI app? “Replika: My AI Friend” which wants to be your virtual reality best friend is one of the worst apps Mozilla said it’s ever reviewed and voted by users as the 10th “most creepy.”

“It’s plagued by weak password requirements, sharing of personal data with advertisers, and recording of personal photos, videos, and voice and text messages consumers shared with the chatbot,” the researchers said.

Others in the Top 10 of the apps users voted the “most creepy” include (in order) Pride Counseling, Better Stop Suicide, Pray, Cerebral, Better Help, TalkSpace, The Mighty, 7 Cups, and Youper.

“The worst offenders are still letting consumers down in scary ways, tracking and sharing their most intimate information and leaving them incredibly vulnerable,” said Jen Caltrider, Mozilla’s *Privacy Not Included Lead. 

But it can be done the right way, too

On the other hand, Caltrider praised a handful of apps that handle data responsibly and respectfully, proving that it can do things the right way. One that found itself in the “most creepy” category – Youper – is trying to turn its life around and is running for “most-improved app” for significantly strengthening both its password requirements and privacy policy. 

Another is Woebot which has improved its privacy policy to explain that all users now have the same rights to access and delete their own data. When ConsumerAffairs investigated Woebot on the Play Store, it also says that no data is shared with third parties, the data is encrypted in transit, and a user can request that data be deleted – all a definite positive.

Quick and easy. Get matched with a Home Security partner.