a phone displaying a mindfulness app on top of a blanket

Let’s Talk About the Monetisation of Self-Care Apps and Other ‘Wellness’ Products

The ethics behind 'wellness' and 'mental health' apps

Mental health and wellbeingTech and the online world
By VoiceBox ·


By young people, for young people

Let’s Talk About the Monetisation of Self-Care Apps and Other ‘Wellness’ Products

The right to universally free mental health support is a central debate to many governing bodies. Any notion of a community required to pay large sums to manage their wellbeing is one that strikes concern and discomfort among many. 

But what about in the digital world? Do similar ethics apply here? Mental health apps – or self-care apps – are digital applications that help people manage mild symptoms of poor mental health. There are many options available to download from app stores; ranging from diaries, to astrology, to meditation, to customisable pets. Some of these apps charge money for full access to their services. We want to ask: is that fair? 

While no one should criticise the necessity for developers to raise operational funds, controversy rises when we explore how this is done. Free versions of self-care apps often limit access to users, meaning that only those who can afford to pay benefit appropriately. Some also implement external advertising as part of the free experience, while others have admitted to ‘trolling’ users with push notifications in order to nudge them back onto the app.

If these practices were carried out offline in a hospital or doctor’s office, many would be appalled. But in the digital world, there is little to stop developers exploiting users for profit providing they remain in the realms of the law. Self-care apps often act as a temporary bandage for young people because mental health professionals are either inaccessible, or too expensive. So shouldn't some sort of responsibility, then, also exist in these spaces?

Legitimacy also needs to be considered. Do these apps actually work, or are they just good at using a lot of buzzwords? A 2019 study found that out of 1,435 self-care apps, 44% used “scientific language” to back claims, despite many of these including “techniques not validated by literature searches.” This is an alarming development. With 20,000 self-care apps thought to exist today, it begs the question: why are so many people being enticed into paying for products that contain baseless information? During what is undoubtedly a mental health crisis, are these largely unregulated apps simply taking advantage of a bad situation? 

The young people we posed this debate to generally had similar perspectives (1). Only 8% paid for a self-care app, while 55% agreed that developers shouldn’t generate funds through user payments. Twenty seven per cent, however, thought charging money was ok, and 18% weren’t sure. 

These findings demonstrate a small part of the growing sentiment among young people that the current ‘wellness’ landscape is counterfeit. ‘Wellness’ – a word that we’re hearing more and more – is forecast to be a market worth seven trillion dollars worldwide by 2025. Whether through self-care apps, gut health, skin care, or crystals (to name but a few), ‘wellness’ has taken over social media; encouraging consumers to invest in bettering themselves at a large cost. The new ‘deinfluencer’ movement has seen youth voices use their platforms to condemn certain trends and products by emphasising the financial dangers of extreme commercialism. YouTuber Drew Gooden illustrates this well in his video about the validity of costly mental health products advertised online. He reviews “a whole slew of little devices that each cost hundreds of dollars all with the same promise of ‘fixing your broken brain’, usually backed up by vague in-house research.” Unsurprisingly, most of these devices were rebuked during his investigation. 

Self-care apps create a lot of noise, but their effectiveness is yet to be proven on a justifiable scale. This isn’t to say that all self-care apps are bad, or that you shouldn’t use them. As advocates of young people taking charge of their mental health, we applaud the array of well-made digital products out there to turn to in moments of stress. But if we are to truly tackle the youth mental health crisis, early intervention support – such youth mental health services – must be acknowledged, and better funded. We hope to see increased support for young people’s mental health in legislation going forward.

1.Opinion gathering collected through polling of the VoiceBox community

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