Warning: *privacy not included with this product
"You deserve to be happy." Yes, you do deserve to be happy! BetterHelp thinks they can help you with that if you use their online service to connect with a therapist. Download the app, complete the intake questionnaire, pay up, and boom, BetterHelp says they will match you with a therapist right for you. Then they say you get unlimited messaging with your therapist through chat, phone, or video. Unlimited! All this sounds good, just know that BetterHelp has a bit of a spotty record with things like actually providing the services they promised. And they got in some hot water when they used social media and YouTube influencers to promote their product in ways people found icky. Top that off with a questionable brand partnership they formed following the tragedy at the Travis Scott concert in 2021 where people died and BetterHelp may or may not leave you feeling happy. Oh, and their privacy and security practices seem rather questionable too. US regulatory agency the Federal Trade Commission even confirmed that in 2023.
What could happen if something goes wrong?
First reviewed April 20, 2022. Review updated, April 25, 2023
BetterHelp has gotten worse since we reviewed them in 2022, which is concerning because their privacy practices seemed pretty bad to us last year. The biggest flag we about BetterHelp since our last review is that they had a pretty serious enforcement action launched against them by the US regulator agency the Federal Trade Commission, announced in March, 2023. The FTC stated, "At several points in the signup process, BetterHelp promised consumers that it would not use or disclose their personal health data except for limited purposes, such as to provide counseling services. Despite these promises, BetterHelp used and revealed consumers’ email addresses, IP addresses, and health questionnaire information to Facebook, Snapchat, Criteo, and Pinterest for advertising purposes, according to the FTC’s complaint." The results of this enforcement action are a $7.8 million settlement paid to consumers and a ban on Betterhelp "sharing consumers’ health data, including sensitive information about mental health challenges, for advertising."
This is all very bad. But the crackdown by the US regulator body is a very good trend we like to see. We hope this will lead other mental health app companies with questionable data sharing practice to feel pressure and change for the better.
Other than this FTC enforcement action, BetterHelp earns all three of our privacy dings this year -- for sharing data for advertising purposes, for not being clear if all users have the same rights to delete their data regardless of the privacy laws the live under, and for having a bad track record of protecting and respecting their users' sensitive personal information. Last year we felt BetterHelp was bad. This year we have further proof they are a company that most certainly earns our *Privacy Not Included warning label.
Read our 2022 review:
But wait, there's more! BetterHelp does collect a whole lot of personal information, from the responses to their intake questionnaire (like are you feeling depressed or anxious or are you struggling to maintain relationships), to things like name, age, email address, and phone number. They also say they can use data they collect on you for personalization, product offerings relevant to your individual interests, and targeted ads. And they say they can share some data with a number of third parties including advertisers (boo!), and with any subsidiaries or parent companies within their corporate group (which includes Pride Counseling, Teen Counseling, and Faith Counseling). Remember, every time your data is shared, the potential for data leaks or breaches grows.
And according to this 2020 article by Jezebel, BetterHelp shares metadata from every message, though not its contents, with Facebook. This means that Facebook could know what time of day a user was going to therapy, their approximate location, and how long they were chatting on the app. Yup, red flag.
Is there more that worries us? Why, yes, there is. BetterHelp says they collect, use, and store communications between users and counselors on their platform. They do say they encrypt messages between you and your therapist on the platform, which is good. We were unable to confirm if BetterHelp has a system in place to manage security vulnerabilities on their app, which raises a flag for us about their overall security practices. We emailed their listed privacy contact to ask some questions about BetterHelp's privacy practices and received no response to our questions, so we're not sure if users can expect a timely response from that listed contact.
BetterHelp is a popular mental health platform right now in 2022. They are pouring millions of dollars into advertising to grow their user base. They have a number of concerning privacy and security practices that we and others have reported like sending data to Facebook and sharing data widely with third parties. What's the worst that could happen? Unfortunately, we're afraid a lot could go wrong based on what we learned in our research. That's why we've currently labeled this product *Privacy Not Included.
Tips to protect yourself
- Do NOT connect the app to your Facebook, Google, or other social media accounts or third-party tools, and do not share medical data when connected to those account.
- Click the "Shared" button next to each message you've sent if you want it to no longer show in your account.
- Do not sign up with third-party accounts. Better just log in with email and strong password.
- Choose a strong password! You may use a password control tool like 1Password, KeePass etc
- Use your device privacy controls to limit access to your personal information via app (do not give access to your camera, microphone, images, location unless neccessary)
- Keep your app regularly updated
- Limit ad tracking via your device (e.g. on iPhone go to Privacy -> Advertising -> Limit ad tracking) and biggest ad networks (for Google, go to Google account and turn off ad personalization)
- Request your data be deleted once you stop using the app. Simply deleting an app from your device usually does not erase your personal data.
- When starting a sign-up, do not agree to tracking of your data if possible.
What can be used to sign up?
What data does the company collect?
Name or nickname, age, e-mail address, phone number, and emergency contact information, gender, sexual orientation
Symptoms and mental state observations
Information on your partner (if you use couples therapy)
How does the company use this data?
How can you control your data?
What is the company’s known track record of protecting users’ data?
In March 2023, BetterHelp got in trouble with FTC for sharing health data it had promised to keep private — including information about mental health challenges — with companies including Facebook and Snapchat. BetterHelp said the settlement (which included a payment of $7.8M) was not an admission of wrongdoing and that the behavior for which it was sanctioned is standard for the industry.
In 2021, the Economist shared the report of one user that "When I first joined BetterHelp, I started to see targeted ads with words that I had used on the app to describe my personal experiences.”
In October 2018, BetterHelp gained attention from media personalities after concerns were raised about alleged use of unfair pricing, bad experiences with the app, paid reviews from actors, and terms of service that allegedly did not correspond with ads promoted by professional YouTubers.
Child Privacy Information
Can this product be used offline?
User-friendly privacy information?
Links to privacy information
Does this product meet our Minimum Security Standards?
"All the messages between you and your therapist are encrypted by 256-bit encryption."
The company representative shared with us that "in addition to daily automated vulnerability scans and an invite only bug bounty program managed by Bugcrowd, the Member Success team has been instructed to refer Security Researchers to email us directly at [email protected]. If their disclosure has merit, we’ll have them added to the Bugcrowd team so it can be processed through channels and they can be rewarded for that and any subsequent bugs they may find."
"BetterHelp uses Machine Learning to process users’ responses to the intake questionnaire and limited additional data, such as therapist schedules and member time zone, to match a user with a therapist. We do not use generative AI or large langauge models like Chat-GPT."
Is this AI untrustworthy?
What kind of decisions does the AI make about you or for you?
Is the company transparent about how the AI works?
Does the user have control over the AI features?
Mozilla Statement on FTC, BetterHelp SettlementPrivacy Not Included
FTC reaches deal with online therapy company over data misuse claimsPolitico
FTC bans BetterHelp from sharing consumer data with advertisers, issues $7.8M fineHealthcare Drive
‘Shut it off immediately’: The health industry responds to data privacy crackdownPolitico
BetterHelp shared customer data while promising it was private, says FTCThe Verge
BetterHelp Online Therapy Review 2023Forbes
Mental health app privacy language opens up holes for user dataThe Verge
'Creepy' Mental Health And Prayer Apps Are Sharing Your Personal DataForbes
Mental health and prayer apps have some of the worst privacy protections, study claims, finding they 'track, share and capitalize' on users intimate thoughts and feelingsDaily Mail
FTC to Ban BetterHelp from Revealing Consumers’ Data, Including Sensitive Mental Health Information, to Facebook and Others for Targeted AdvertisingFTC
Do Therapy Apps Really Protect Your Privacy?Life Hacker
‘We don’t think this is a healthy therapeutic relationship’: Therapist exposes BetterHelp’s problems in viral TikTokDaily Dot
Peace of Mind...Evaluating the Privacy Practices of Mental Health AppsConsumer Reports
The Digital Standard Case Study: Mental Health AppsThe Digital Standard
Mental health app privacy language opens up holes for user dataThe Verge
Mental Health Apps Aren't All As Private As You May ThinkConsumer Reports
How the BetterHelp scandal changed our perspective on influencer responsibilityMaastricht University
The Spooky, Loosely Regulated World of Online TherapyJezebel
YouTube Stars Are Being Accused of Profiting Off Fans’ DepressionThe Atlantic
How Effective Has BetterHelp’s Advertising Been?Medium
Here's What's Happening With Travis Scott's Free Month Of BetterHelp Therapy — And Why It's ControversialBuzzFeed
Dramatic growth in mental-health apps has created a risky industryThe Economist
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