The CyberDoctor Is In

therapy appsCyber therapy apps have proliferated the consumer marketplace, offering advice on areas such as personal crisis, parenting skills and decision making. Journalist Judith Newman gives cybertherapy apps a mixed review in an article she wrote for The New York Times. While she does acknowledge that smartphone apps can help people sort out their problems, she approaches the genre with distrust and skepticism. Newman indicates that, although the advice she was given by several smartphone apps including Fix a Fight, MoodKit, Thought Checker, ParentSmart, Unstuck and Simply Being was sound and logical, she chose to disregard these electronic words of wisdom. Despite her satirical treatment of the subject, Newman adeptly underscores the major criticism levied against cyber therapy applications. In short, you just can’t trust a machine.

Offering a more serious editorial on the subject of cybertherapy apps, journalist Michael Sigman writes for the Huffington Post that the crux of therapy is the warm, interpersonal, trusting relationship between two people and that cyber therapists just can’t be programmed to respond on the same warm, personal level as a human therapist. While software technicians can program a machine with all of the learned knowledge of a therapist, there is an intuitive art to the therapeutic process that just cannot be mimicked.

Beware Therapy Shortcuts

Newman illustrates when cyber therapy misses the mark when she types into a program called Unstuck that she is worried that her writing isn’t good enough. The program then mimics most therapists by asking, “Why is that?” to which Newman responds that her parents were too critical of her. The opportunity for empathy and in-depth exploration is then lost by the machine who simply repeats, “Why is that?” Newman then understandably withdraws her trust in the process, typing a sarcastic, “Because they were Jewish.” Becoming its own parody, the machine then mechanically repeats its now annoying interrogative, “Why is that?” to which Newman responds “Because they don’t believe Jesus Christ is our savior.” The machine then erroneously and hilariously concludes that her problem is that she doesn’t believe in Jesus.

While Newman’s reaction to her cyber therapy sessions is to laugh and poke fun at these apps, Sigman points out that the seriously mentally ill might actually be damaged psychologically by turning to cyber therapists during times of genuine crisis. At worst, Sigman warns that these cyber therapists can be cruel, manipulative, dismissive and superficial and might actually cause re-traumatize people.

For those who do not take cyber therapy apps too seriously, there is some fun to be had in discussing your problems with a machine. People struggling with everyday problems such as personal relationships, parenting and insecurities might find these apps offer one or two useful insights. But those struggling with serious problems or a mental health crisis will likely not find cyber therapists to be a suitable alternative to their regular weekly appointments with their human counselors.