The Hidden Cost of Teletherapy

Danya Sherbini is an MPP candidate and Irving B. Harris Fellow at the University of Chicago. Shutterstock In the US, teletherapy became increasingly popular during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, an estimated 21% of US adults used a teletherapy service, while mental health startups collectively raised $5.5 billion in funding. These platforms connect users with therapists for virtual counseling sessions. Although some benefits of in-person therapy may be lost in the shift to digital, teletherapy offers added convenience and flexibility for patients with access to a computer or smartphone and stable internet. But the convenience of teletherapy comes at a cost beyond that of the service itself: your mental health data. Most teletherapy platforms collect a range of intimate information about users’ mental health, such as whether a user has been to therapy before or has had suicidal thoughts. This data is often shared with third parties, including social media companies, advertising technology companies, and data brokers. Dozens of telehealth websites have been found to send user data, including URLs visited, full name, email, phone number, when a user initiated checkout, when a user added to their cart, when a user created an account, and users’ answers to health questionnaires, to Google, Facebook, Bing, TikTok, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Twitter. One platform focused on substance abuse was found to use Meta’s pixel tracking tool to send identifiable user responses about self-harm, drug, and alcohol use to Facebook. Numerous websites tied to the national 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline were also…The Hidden Cost of Teletherapy