Self-Helping Responsibly

A consumer’s guide to identifying legit self-improvement sites

Posted Jun 04, 2018

There is a long-standing body of research suggesting that “self-administered” interventions, like books or websites, can be an effective medium for self-improvement. Numerous such websites and apps exist, tackling every self-improvement goal from losing weight to following a doctor’s treatment regimen to improving one’s happiness. Unlike psychotherapy, which is governed by ethical standards as well as law, self-improvement is, for the most part, unregulated. The onus, then, is on the companies themselves to behave ethically. What signs should consumers look for that will let them know that a given website is taking their ethical responsibility to users seriously?

They Acknowledge Their Limits

Websites that are not serious about their ethical responsibility claim that they can help anyone and everyone. Responsible self-help sites, on the other hand, clearly define who they are (and are not) designed to help. Weight Watchers, for example – one of the longest-standing self-help sites on the internet, and one I have no professional affiliation with, though I have used it – clearly states that people with eating disorders are not their target audience. 

Weight Watchers.com
Screenshot from WW's website of their disclaimer.
Source: Weight Watchers.com

By acknowledging the limits of their ability to help certain users, they make it more likely that those users will seek the help they need, rather than continuing to use a site that will not help them.

They Give Users As Much Knowledge as Possible

Similar to a doctor giving a patient informed consent before treatment, responsible self-help websites endeavor to educate so that users can make informed decisions about their usage of the site. Responsible self-help sites are based on published, peer-reviewed research that has been replicated. Users should be able to freely access information about the science underlying the site. Most research-based platforms will have pages where you can learn more about the relevant science (not surprising that Happily has one of these, since I helped build it!); if no such page exists, emailing them should rapidly yield more information, and if it doesn't, be wary.

It is also a good sign when sites provide tools that users can help to evaluate whether the website is helping them. If participants are regularly tracking themselves, they have data to show them whether they are making progress as a result of their work on the site. If they aren’t making progress, they then have the option to leave the site, or else change the way they are using the site. On a weight loss site, the obvious choice for progress tracking is weight or body measurement, but there are other metrics appropriate for psychological outcomes (e.g. well-being, stress levels) as well. Happily, not surprisingly, measures well-being.

They Care Whether Or Not They Cause Lasting Change

Behavior change isn’t fast or easy, and websites that promise fast results in a limited period of time are likely more interested in a user’s money than their personal well-being. Responsible self-help websites promote the idea that lasting effort is required to cause lasting change. They often will put their money where their mouth is, employing research scientists to conduct research testing whether or not users are helped by using their site. Using data to guide their efforts, they may adjust their services to optimize benefit to users. You will see evidence of this if you search for clinical trials and/or research articles. For example, if you search for “clinical trial” and the name of the online platform you are considering, you will find any research trials registered at clinicaltrials.gov, assuming they exist. The existence of a clinical trial studying whatever platform you're looking at suggests that they are serious about making sure their product works.

Final Thoughts

The market is flooded with websites and apps designed to help people improve themselves. Many of these products have little or no basis in science. However, although some remain skeptical, the research community seems to agree that internet-based self-help can lead to real, long-term change in a variety of domains. Using the guidelines outlined above, a discerning eye can tell the difference between the hype and the help.