Smartphone apps for depression and anxiety: a systematic review and meta-analysis of techniques to increase engagement

Smartphone apps for depression and anxiety: a systematic review and meta-analysis of techniques to increase engagement

Wu, A. Scult, M. A. Barnes, E. D. Betancourt, J. A. Falk, A. Gunning, F. M.
npj Digital Medicine
4 (1) (no pagination)
Meta-analyses have shown that digital mental health apps can be efficacious in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety. However, real-world usage of apps is typically not sustained over time, and no studies systematically examine which features increase sustained engagement with apps or the relationship between engagement features and clinical efficacy. We conducted a systematic search of the literature to identify empirical studies that (1) investigate standalone apps for depression and/or anxiety in symptomatic participants and (2) report at least one measure of engagement. Features intended to increase engagement were categorized using the persuasive system design (PSD) framework and principles of behavioral economics. Twenty-five studies with 4159 participants were included in the analysis. PSD features were commonly used, whereas behavioral economics techniques were not. Smartphone apps were efficacious in treating symptoms of anxiety and depression in randomized controlled trials, with overall small-to-medium effects (g = 0.2888, SE = 0.0999, z(15) = 2.89, p = 0.0119, Q(df = 14) = 41.93, p < 0.0001, I<sup>2</sup> = 66.6%), and apps that employed a greater number of engagement features as compared to the control condition had larger effect sizes (beta = 0.0450, SE = 0.0164, t(15) = 2.7344, p = 0.0161). We observed an unexpected negative association between PSD features and engagement, as measured by completion rate (beta = -0.0293, SE = 0.0121, t(17) = 02.4142, p = 0.0281). Overall, PSD features show promise for augmenting app efficacy, though engagement, as reflected in study completion, may not be the primary factor driving this association. The results suggest that expanding the use of PSD features in mental health apps may increase clinical benefits and that other techniques, such as those informed by behavioral economics, are employed infrequently. Copyright © 2021, The Author(s).

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Type of intervention

Treatment and Child Welfare Interventions


Mental Health Problems and Disorders

Emotional Problems

Depression and Depressed Mood

Anxiety Problems

Anxiety and Anxiousness


The organization of interventions

E-health interventions

Age group

Adolescents (13-18 years)

Age not specified

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