Merlyn Holkar, Senior Research Officer, Money and Mental Health

Online shopping and mental health

10 November 2020

Today we have launched Convenience at a cost, a new paper looking at online shopping. Online shopping is an essential lifeline for many of us with mental health problems, enabling people to order food, clothes and other supplies even when too unwell to leave the house. And, as we start another lockdown and head towards Black Friday and Christmas, people may shop online more than ever before.

“Shopping online is much better for me to deal with because of my mental health problems. It means I can buy what I need without having to cope with going to the shops which is very often impossible for me due to anxiety, paranoia etc.” Expert by experience

However the design of online shopping sites can cause problems. Sites often use highly personalised nudges and suggestions to pressure us to spend more. This can be difficult to resist, particularly for people who are more impulsive as a result of their mental health problem. Too often this leads to overspending, debt problems and puts additional pressure on people’s mental health.

“I ran up debt on credit cards and catalogues during a time of severe stress which then compounded the problems I was having.” Expert by experience

Problems by design?

Work with our Research Community has identified three key elements of site design that can be particularly problematic for people when they are unwell.

Shopping sites make it incredibly quick and easy to buy online. People can spend vast amounts at any time of the day or night, often with just just a few clicks. Common options – like the ability to save payment details or ‘buy now, pay later’ – can further reduce friction. Research Community members told us that shopping online can be so frictionless that it doesn’t always feel like spending ‘real’ money, particularly during periods of poor mental health, and that this can encourage impulsive spending. Nationally, half (54%) of people who have recently experienced a mental health problem feel that online shopping sites make it too easy to spend more money than you can afford. 

Most shopping sites also use a range of behavioural nudges to put customers under pressure to spend more, for instance alerting customers about items that are low in stock, selling quickly or on sale for a limited time. Research Community members described how pressure from shopping sites can instil panic, distort decision-making and drive unnecessary purchases.

“When you’re told x number of people are looking at an item or there’s only so many left, irrational panic sets in and I’ve made foolish purchases.”  Expert by experience

Going online is an increasingly personalised experience. Lots of shopping sites offer tailored suggestions , and even once we’ve finished browsing, adverts can seem to follow us across the internet. This is a key difference between online shopping and visiting the high street. If you’re online, spending is only ever a click away, even if you don’t want to shop. Research Community members told us that personalised suggestions and adverts can be particularly difficult to resist during periods of poor mental health, and some felt taken advantage of as a result.

“Online shopping is invaluable but overly invasive. We wouldn’t allow a sales assistant to follow us home and keep bombarding us with products and offers and the online experience should not facilitate this.” Expert by experience

Problems by design?

In Convenience at a cost we set out a number of practical steps that online shopping sites can take to make it easier for customers with mental health problems to stay in control of their spending online and to avoid financial difficulty. Online shopping sites should:

  • Give customers greater control over their accounts, including the option to turn off features that can cause problems, like the option to ‘buy now, pay later’ or on-site nudges
  • Allow customers to opt-in to greater friction, for instance a 24-hour cooling-off period before transactions are processed
  • Provide information about how to stay in control of online spending and where to turn for support if problems develop.

We also call for a review of existing consumer protections for online shoppers, to ensure they are fit for the digital age. Online sales and marketing techniques have developed significantly in recent years, tipping the scales in favour of retailers and exposing people with mental health problems in particular to significant risks. It’s essential that consumer protections keep pace with change.


To find out more about our research and recommendations, read Convenience at a cost here.