Mental Health Apps: Saviors or Predators?

Are You Happy Now?

In my ideal world, everyone gets the help they’re needed in life. They’re not given help, but rather, they work for it. People fight for what they want through the help of others each and every day. Help is the motivator that propels people to self-actualization and reach their full potential.

As you can probably tell, this is a fictional world of mine. It’s difficult to focus on others, while we’re busy focusing on ourselves. Am I financially stable? Is my health stable? Am I emotionally stable? We’re constantly bombard ourselves with these questions and ask if we’re truly happy.

I can’t answer this question for you, but I’m sure that you’ve tried to better yourself in one area of life. Did you try spending less? Drinking water every hour? Did you take up distraction free meditating? Congrats. These habits chip away at our shortcomings to better ourselves. You did it. Baby steps.

Negative (-) Reinforcement

Increased usage of cell phones have attributed to higher levels of anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses around the world. I’m sure you’ve had days where you resisted the temptation of your phone. Something designed to make life easier has dangerous consequences on our well-being.

For a Psychology 101 refresher, these are the patterns of a negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement was proposed by B.F. Skinner in his theory of operate conditioning. Simply put, it’s a mean of developing habits to increase a certain behavior. Through negative reinforcement, we remove a stimulus to attain the habit we want to achieve. In this case, we hide our phones to prevent ourselves from peeking at them.

With the word negative in the phrase, you think that this mode of conditioning is the bad guy? The evil doer? The one to stay away from?

I say not.

Negative reinforcement is one form of operant conditioning. It’s not good or bad. It’s simply a means of developing a habit. In moderation, negative reinforcement can raise levels of awareness to the world around us. Negative reinforcement is one form of attaining the help we need on the daily. As with anything overdosage is dangerous.

Positive (+) Reinforcement

On the other side of the conditioning coin is positive reinforcement. The rewards. We get rewarded when we do something right. We did our homework so now we have ten extra minutes of TV. Like before, with the word positive in the name, we believe this is the hero, the kind of habit developing skill that we should strive for.

Not quite.

If you can’t tell where I’m going with this one, positive reinforcement in excess usage can cause more harm than good. Positive reinforcement can be used against you by outside forces to develop a behavioral pattern. We get stuck in an opportunistic way of thinking that forms delusional demeanor. We’d do anything to achieve the reward. We’ll force ourselves to jump through higher and higher hoops. The activity, which seemed simple and rewarding at first, has us performing more complicated actions to feel the high we once did.

Mobile games commonly use this technique:

Level 1: touch the screen and get coins. Yay!

Level 5: wait thirty minutes and earned more coins! Yay!

Level 10: give your credit card information to unlock coins. Yay?

Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing

As some of us know, this is expecting from mobile games. However, there are apps out there which aren’t so obvious. I’m talking about mental health apps. The apps we seek out to better ourselves.

Recently I downloaded a habit developing app that I used to take care of my well-being. Nothing necessarily wrong per say, but I’m always yearning for finding my center through healthy habits. Finding a new way to squeeze stress out of my life.

At first, this app had me drink water in the morning. I pressed the buttons saying, “Yes! I will drink water in the morning!” “Yes! Water is healthy for me and I want to be healthy!” “Yes! I will go out of my way to drink water after I wake!”

The buttons assaulted my psyche one after another.

The next morning, what did I do? I drank water. And I did confidently.

Needless to say, drinking water helped me throughout my day. I felt more alert and attentive than I had in the past month. It’s so easy to forget how to take care of our bodies while we’re always on-the-go.

The night, I repeated the same affirmations as the night before. “Yes! I will drink water!” and “Yes! I will…” I’m sure you get it by now.

I found myself happier by changing this habit through positive reinforcement. I rewarded myself by checking a box in the app that I performed the task and was ready to do it again. I couldn’t wait for the cheery bell notification noise after every box check.

Cash Rules Everything Around Me

After a week of checking the box, I wanted a new task. What if I added another habit to my life that made me as present as drinking water in the morning has? Great! Sign me up!

I “unlocked” the ability to form a new habit — go to bed early. I was ready to make the most of my life.

A dialogue box appeared and stated, “To unlock this habit and more, make sure to sign-up for an annual subscription for an X amount of dollars! Remember, we’re clinically proven by psychologists to help you form healthy habits!”

I had to physically stop my thumb and ponder what I was about to do. I was so close to paying an annual subscription for this app. For what? Drinking water in the morning? Going to bed earlier? Etc.? No way.

This app used my feel good feeling against me. Positive reinforcement meets capitalism. Analyzing my situation, this app preyed against me to make money. I deleted the app immediately.

What Are Apps After?

In the infographic below, you can see some stats from the Wall Street Journal which reported on these types of apps. I highly recommend the article here if enjoy this post.

As you can see, less than 1% of apps in 2014 included evidence-based practices. Are we so sure that apps are aiming to help us? Do they want our money? Don’t fall into their trap of positive reinforcement regardless of app category. First, apps your attention. Secondly, they want your money.

Be careful what you get yourself into and think rationally about your decisions.

I stopped drinking water in the morning after that.