Ethics and Information Technology 23 (3):345-361 (2021)

Mobile health applications that promise the user to help her with some aspect of her health are very popular: for-profit apps such as MyFitnessPal, Fitbit, or Headspace have tens of millions of users each. For-profit health apps are designed and run as optimization systems. One would expect that these health apps aim to optimize the health of the user, but in reality they aim to optimize user engagement and, in effect, conversion. This is problematic, I argue, because digital health environments that aim to optimize user engagement risk being manipulative. To develop this argument, I first provide a brief analysis of the underlying business models and the resulting designs of the digital environments provided by popular for-profit health apps. In a second step, I present a concept of manipulation that can help analyze digital environments such as health apps. In the last part of the article, I use my concept of manipulation to analyze the manipulative potential of for-profit health apps. Although for-profit health can certainly empower their users, the conditions for empowerment also largely overlap with the conditions for manipulation. As a result, we should be cautious when embracing the empowerment discourse surrounding health apps. An additional aim of this article is to contribute to the rapidly growing literature on digital choice architectures and the ethics of influencing behavior through such choice architectures. I take health apps to be a paradigmatic example of digital choice architectures that give rise to ethical questions, so my analysis of the manipulative potential of health apps can also inform the larger literature on digital choice architectures.
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DOI 10.1007/s10676-020-09576-6
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References found in this work BETA

Thinking, Fast and Slow.Daniel Kahneman - 2011 - New York: New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Health as a Theoretical Concept.Christopher Boorse - 1977 - Philosophy of Science 44 (4):542-573.
On the Distinction Between Disease and Illness.Christopher Boorse - 1975 - Philosophy and Public Affairs 5 (1):49-68.

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