Weisel, K.K., Fuhrmann, L.M., Berking, M., Baumeister, H., Cuijpers, P., & Ebert, D.D. (2019). Stand alone smartphone apps for mental health: A systematic review and meta-analysis. NPJ Digital Medicine, 2, 118. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41746-019-0188-8
Mental health and lifestyle apps are very popular. There are more than 318,000 health related mobile apps on the market, 490 of which are specifically about mental health. Most of the apps do not provide information about their effectiveness, and only 11% appear valid on the face of it. Apps are potentially useful to increase access to mental health treatments since smartphones are ubiquitous in the population. However, past reports show that the drop-out rates of unguided internet interventions for mental health are very high, only 17% of clients actually complete all the modules, the average client only completes about 16% to 25% of modules, and any positive effects often disappeared when assessed in the longer term. In this meta-analysis, Weisel and colleagues assess if standalone psychological interventions delivered by smartphone apps are efficacious for mental disorders. Their systematic review found 19 randomized controlled trials that directly compared a smartphone app to a control group (e.g., no treatment) for a variety of disorders (depression, anxiety, PTSD, sleep problems, substance use, suicidal behavior). Almost half of the interventions were CBT-based. Only 1 of the 19 studies had a low risk of bias – that is only 5% of studies were high quality in terms of sampling, randomization, data analysis, and so on. More than half of studies were very low quality. The pooled effect size from six comparisons for depression showed a positive effect of smartphone apps at post-treatment to reduce depressive symptoms (g = 0.33; 95% CI: 0.10–0.57, p = .005). Similar positive findings were found for smoking cessation. These effects are considered small by most standards. However, the findings from four comparisons for anxiety disorders were not significant (g = 0.30, 95% CI: −0.1 to 0.7, p = 0.145). Similar non-significant results were found for most other disorders as well. There were not enough studies to assess the longer-term effects of apps beyond immediately post-treatment.
The main problem with this research area is that the quality of the studies generally is very low. Researchers have known for some time that lower quality studies tend to result in inflated treatment effects. So even if the meta-analysis found small significant effects of mental health apps for depression and smoking cessation, these findings are not likely reliable. Further, there is almost no research on the longer-term outcomes to assess if any positive effects are lasting. The research does not support the use of apps and computerized interventions as standalone treatments. They may be useful as an adjunct to traditional therapy or when they are provided with sufficient guidance by a therapist.