ADHD Research: No Evidence for Diagnostic or Treatment Apps

ADHD apps no evidence

A team of researchers conducted a systematic review of apps (mobile applications) marketed as useful for ADHD — and found no evidence. At all.

Hold on!  Obviously, many people with ADHD find apps useful for various purposes.  If anyone knows this, it’s me.  I’ve led an Adult ADHD discussion group for 15 years here in the heart of Silicon Valley!

When we talk about creating “external supports” for Executive Functions, yes, our omnipresent devices can often do that in various ways.  When they aren’t distracting us. In fact, I asked a late-diagnosis woman with ADHD,  Andie Katschthaler, to share the secrets of her #ADHDTechStack with my readers.

Right now, though, we’re talking about evidence for ADHD-specific apps. That is, these are apps marketed to people with ADHD on the basis of being ADHD-informed. They peddle claims about diagnostics and treatment. But they offer no supporting evidence to these claims. Yes, that matters.

Increasingly, the Internet bursts with marketing to people with ADHD. Constantly, new  “influencers” and “health sites”mine sought-after keywords for search-engine-optimization.

Do you know who is financially supporting many of these efforts?  You might be surprised. Some day, I will write that manifesto. But first, my husband says, we’ll need a security budget. Ha.

To be clear: This is not a “let me show you how to turn on your iPhone, Okay Boomer” moment. This is about claims and proof.

Now to the research on ADHD apps.

Please note: with new posts I’ll be adding all the links at the end. Less distracting.

A Quick Take on Research Methods:

The team of researchers based in Bulgarian and Swedish universities used these methods and parameters:

  • Systematically catalogued all the mobile apps purportedly targeting ADHD and its assessment, treatment, or both
  • Searched for these products on iTunes/iOS (Apple App Store), Google Play and the National Health Service Health Apps Library
  • Established a time timeline up to May 2017,  re-checking for changes in March and September 2019
  • Included only apps in English and currently functional at the time of consideration
  • Reviewed the general features of these apps along with any empirical support for their usefulness
  • Provided detailed descriptions on the four ADHD-targeting apps with the most downloads
  • Gleaned (where stated) the marketer’s stated target population, developer, price, number of downloads, ratings, privacy, purpose, and empirical support
  • Performed literature searchers including PsychINFO, Pubmed, Scopus, Web of Science, and Cochrane database

More Details:

Of the 355 apps researchers found, they included 109 apps in the study.  The majority were marketed for treatment with ADHD.  Some, however, claimed usefulness for ADHD symptoms assessment. Some claimed both.

For solely the top four apps (ADHD Test, ADHD Adults, ADHD-Test Lite, ADHD Self Test), researchers note:

  • Three had been downloaded at least 10,000 times
  • One had been downloaded 100,000-500,000 times

Few apps contained information regarding their development.  None contained information regarding evidence for its efficacy or effectiveness. That is, we have no idea how much these app developers actually know about ADHD or developed their app on clear knowledge.

The team’s literature search identified 51 papers on the topic of ADHD apps.  Only one, however, met the research inclusion criteria—and it came one year after the established timeline of 2017.

Study Conclusions

There is no overlap between evidence in the literature and apps on the market.

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Given the large proliferation of mental health apps and their potential benefits in terms of dissemination and costs, future research needs to be conducted in order to establish the safety and efficacy of ADHD apps available on the commercial market.

Links for this Post:

Getting and Staying Organized: My ADHD Tech Stack

Silicon Valley  Adult ADHD Discussion Group

Attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder mobile apps: A systematic review

What do you think about apps to support people with ADHD? Have you found one particularly helpful? 

Do you think apps purporting to diagnose or guide ADHD treatment should be based on evidence? Or does anything go with apps, as with the Internet. 

—Gina Pera


6 thoughts on “ADHD Research: No Evidence for Diagnostic or Treatment Apps”

  1. Julie TheRock

    I ve got and use almost everyday the app: Health Storylines for ADHD, as you can have it for many troubles or diseases. Really help me for my meds checkups. And other stuff as tracking mood and symptoms. I use it since 2017! Rarely keep using a daily app as this one.
    Oh, BTW, it free. And offer to create our own cercle of support too 😉 .

  2. I think the apps purporting to diagnose or guide ADHD should absolutely be research validated and peer reviewed by medical experts. Technically, a medical diagnosis can only be made by a highly qualified medical professional who is credentialed to do so. We know ADHD is not diagnosed using a screener or one stand alone method, right?
    The bigger issue I’m finding with mental health apps in is a lack of transparency in their privacy policies. I was horrified to learn recently that not all content people post in mental health apps are protected under HIPPA. People need to understand that these apps are not treated like medical records.
    One app I found was directly connected to an insurance company which I found quite interesting.
    Trying to decipher developers who truly have the knowledge and desire to want to help people from those who have their own agenda can be difficult.
    While apps are convenient and considered cost effective, implying they’re diagnostic or are validated treatments is most likely stretching the truth. Especially if there is no connection to a qualified medical professional.

    1. Thank you for making those important points, Gwen.

      It should be pretty clear to all consumers by now: Silicon Valley is all about “data mining.” That is, we consumers might view ourselves as users but in some cases we are actually the product. As with Facebook.

      It’s not just the field of ADHD, of course, or even mental health — but all other aspects of health.

      From what I’ve seen personally (we live in Silicon Valley and know people at various “name” companies), the hirees for these projects are all straight computer scientists. Not life scientists with computational expertise (e.g. my husband). That made me skeptical.


  3. David R Fent

    The one thing app developers know is that those of us with ADD are quickly attracted to a new shiny app promising to make our lives more manageable. It sparkles, we’ll likely check it out! 🙂

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