Merlyn Holkar, Senior Research Officer, Money and Mental Health

A safer net - reducing online harm for people with mental health problems

17 March 2021

The internet has become a central part of everyday life in the UK. Even before the pandemic, more and more of us were going online for everything from shopping to socialising, and the pandemic has accelerated this trend. The shift online has brought huge benefits, but it has also changed the way that we interact, both with each other and with services. This has created new risks and leaves some of us vulnerable to harm.

Over the past year we have explored how particular features of online spaces and services can lead to financial problems for people with mental health problems. We’ve focused on a few key areas, looking at people with mental health problems’ experiences of online gambling, shopping and scams. In all of these areas we found that the design of online spaces can be disempowering for people with mental health problems. Features like nudges, personalisation and quick and easy transactions can all interact with symptoms of poor mental health, undermining informed decision making and make it harder for people to stay in control.

“If a site flags that there’s only one left in stock and three people (or whatever number) are looking at it, I MUST have it … I fall for it every time when [I’m] unwell.” Expert by experience

“[Online gambling] has ruined me financially and in the past, I maxed out credit cards and payday loans to fund this habit.” Expert by experience

Today we published Safety net, a new report that brings together all of our findings on online financial harm. We examine the recurring problems that crop up in different places across the internet and set out steps that government, regulators and online services can take to make the internet a safer place for people with mental health problems.

Why does online design matter?

There are huge differences between online services and their offline equivalents, which can often drive problems for people with mental health problems. Online services can finely tune ‘choice architecture’ – the design of customer journeys and the way that choices are presented to us – and they can use data to personalise the experience for each customer. This gives online services huge power to shape our behaviour, in a way that is simply not possible offline.

One of the most effective ways that services can do this is by minimising friction – making it quick and easy for people to agree to terms and conditions or to spend money. Smooth journeys can be convenient, but for people who experience increased impulsivity when unwell they can lead to unreflective, rushed choices. This often leads to overspending and even people taking out credit that they don’t need, when unwell. Nationally, over 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.

“You can purchase items with one click of a button as your bank details are saved from previous purchases. This makes it so easy to buy items without thinking or realising how much you spend.” Expert by experience

Online design can also affect our perception of spending, making online transactions feel less ‘real’ than handing over physical currency in a high street shop. Online gambling sites often create immersive environments through the use of colours and sounds, to make people feel detached from the real world, and this can be particularly effective when people are unwell. Four in ten (40%) online gamblers who have experienced a mental health problem agreed that it doesn’t feel like they’re spending real money when they gamble online.

“I don’t feel like I am in real life somehow. I am just addicted to winning or just playing.” Expert by experience

“When I’m not well it’s just numbers I can’t relate it back to money because I don’t stand at a till and hand over money.” Expert by experience

What can be done?

Over the past year we’ve worked closely with members of our Research Community to consider what can be done to address these problems harm and make it easier for people with mental health problems to stay in control of their finances online.

We found a clear perception that online services – from social media platforms to shopping sites – have a responsibility to do more, to understand the needs of their customers with mental health problems and to design services that are safer. In Safety net we set out best practice for online services, practical steps that all online services can take, to empower their customers with mental health problems and help them avoid harm. We recommend that online services carefully consider how safe their default customer journeys are for vulnerable customers and offer opt-in settings to help people stay in control, like the ability to turn off marketing nudges.

“Online retailers have a responsibility to their consumers to help [them] stay safe when shopping online!” Expert by experience

In Safety net we also explore the role that government and regulators can play, to ensure that consumer protections keep pace with the advance of technology and help to reduce online financial harm. We call on the government to urgently step up the fight against scams, by including scams in its upcoming Online Safety Bill, and recommend a more proactive approach to online consumer protection. We also explore how regulators could work together more effectively on the common challenges that the shift to online services presents.

For more information about our findings, and how to reduce online financial harm, you can read Safety Net here.