A new report from Money and Mental Health has shown that the ease and convenience of online shopping can offer a lifeline for many people experiencing mental health problems, especially in the context of lockdown restrictions.

However, it also warns that the design of retail websites is making it extremely difficult for people with poor mental health — many of whom struggle with common symptoms such as impulsivity, reduced concentration and low morale — to stay in control of online spending.

In particular, the report shows that easy access to ‘buy now pay later’ options and one-click purchasing, coupled with retailers’ use of pushy, personalised recommendations and notifications, is driving many people with poor mental health to spend more than they can afford online, and increasing their risk of financial harm.

New Opinium polling of 2,000 UK adults illustrates the challenges that people with poor mental health face in managing spending as a result of the ease of online shopping. It shows that:

  • People who’ve experienced mental health problems in the past two years are twice as likely as the wider population to have spent more than they can afford online (29% compared to 12%), or to have purchased goods they don’t need (47% compared to 23%)
  • And the pandemic has compounded these problems. A quarter of adults with recent mental health problems (26%) say they have struggled to stay in control of online spending during lockdown — amounting to 3 million people across the UK
  • The report shows that the ever-present availability of ‘buy now pay later’ (BNPL) products is a particular problem — with over half of UK adults (56%) saying that BNPL services make it too easy to get into debt, and two in five (42%) of those with recent mental health problems saying that BNPL has been harder to resist since lockdown.

Money and Mental Health is calling for retailers to offer customers more tools to manage their spending, such as the choice to opt out of ‘buy now pay later’ options, or to add a ‘cooling off’ period to their account before making purchases.

The charity is also calling on the Competition and Markets Authority, the government’s body for promoting fair consumer markets – to ensure that online shopping sites comply with consumer protection laws, for example not pressurising customers into impulsive purchases.

Helen Undy, Chief Executive of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, said “Online retail can be a lifeline for people living with mental health problems who may struggle to leave the house, especially during the pandemic. But pushy sites and tempting ‘buy now pay later’ offers can cause people to spend more than they can afford, risking both their financial and mental health. ”

“This is particularly challenging in lockdown, with many of us spending longer online, bombarded by adverts telling us that the latest new thing will make us feel better. At its worst, this can leave people in thousands of pounds of debt, with a single day’s shopping spree causing years of misery.”

“With more people facing mental health problems this year, as we approach Black Friday retailers must take action to help customers stay in control. Simple steps, like making it easier for customers to avoid ‘buy now pay later’ options, could help people avoid serious financial harm at this difficult time.”

Commenting on the findings Sarah Pennells, Head of Financial Capability at Royal London said “There’s a real danger that Black Friday spending could send shoppers with mental health issues into the red. Online retailers are experts at encouraging us to spend, with time-limited offers and discount-laden emails, while ‘buy now, pay later’ and one-click purchasing make buying online even easier. The problem is that for some people, it may be money which they can’t afford to spend.”

Separate research by the consumer organisation Which? has shown that one in five people regretted their Black Friday purchase last year, and that figure could be higher among people with mental health issues.

The most common reasons given for regretting Black Friday were that it was an impulse buy (45%) and that they had spent too much over the Black Friday period (34%).