Realising the technological promise of smartphones in addiction research and treatment: An ethical review

Hannah Capon, Wayne Hall, Craig Fry, Adrian Carter

Research output: Contribution to journalReview ArticleResearchpeer-review

32 Citations (Scopus)


Background Smartphone technologies and mHealth applications (or apps) promise unprecedented scope for data collection, treatment intervention, and relapse prevention when used in the field of substance abuse and addiction. This potential also raises new ethical challenges that researchers, clinicians, and software developers must address. Aims This paper aims to identify ethical issues in the current uses of smartphones in addiction research and treatment. Methods A search of three databases (PubMed, Web of Science and PsycInfo) identified 33 studies involving smartphones or mHealth applications for use in the research and treatment of substance abuse and addiction. A content analysis was conducted to identify how smartphones are being used in these fields and to highlight the ethical issues raised by these studies. Results Smartphones are being used to collect large amounts of sensitive information, including personal information, geo-location, physiological activity, self-reports of mood and cravings, and the consumption of illicit drugs, alcohol and nicotine. Given that detailed information is being collected about potentially illegal behaviour, we identified the following ethical considerations: protecting user privacy, maximising equity in access, ensuring informed consent, providing participants with adequate clinical resources, communicating clinically relevant results to individuals, and the urgent need to demonstrate evidence of safety and efficacy of the technologies. Conclusions mHealth technology offers the possibility to collect large amounts of valuable personal information that may enhance research and treatment of substance abuse and addiction. To realise this potential researchers, clinicians and app-developers must address these ethical concerns to maximise the benefits and minimise risks of harm to users.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)47-57
Number of pages11
JournalInternational Journal of Drug Policy
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2016


  • Addiction
  • Ethics
  • mHealth
  • Research
  • Smartphones
  • Substance abuse
  • Treatment

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