Commercial AI chatbots and mental health self-care: An ethnography of contemporary AI companionship

Lead Research Organisation: Loughborough University
Department Name: Communication and Media


This PhD project explores how public media and users perceive commercially available AI companion bots, which promise to provide solutions to mental health problems. The advent of companion bots calls for the investigation of the relational dynamics through which people communicate with these technological artefacts (Guzman & Lewis, 2019), especially within spaces which are intimate such as companionship within mental health self-care. These devices form part of the increasing commercialization and 'lifestylisation' of medicine (Saukko et al., 2010) or as "sociocultural artefacts" with potentially "significant implications for medical authority, the delivery of healthcare and public health work and the "doctor-patient relationship" (Lupton, 2014). By examining the media-driven discourses on commercially marketed AI companions and user experiences, the study explores the intersection between the contentious areas of commercial self-care and AI's ability for social or therapeutic interaction and their social and ethical implications (Natale, 2019).

The overarching research question of the project is:
RQ How, or to what extent, commercially available AI companion bots marketed as solutions to mental health issues are perceived as companions by the media and their users?

This overarching question translates into three specific research objectives:
RO1. To analyse key public media discourses on commercial AI companion bots for mental health
RO2. To examine how users perceive commercially available AI companion bots
RO3. To analyse how users employ and interact with AI companion bots and what kinds of social roles users co-create (friend, therapist, assistant, game)

The project will focus on the mass-marketed AI companion bot 'Replika', launched in 2017. Replika is one of the most successful AI companion bots up to date with 2.5 million sign-ups (Olson, 2018) and an active community of 31,000 members on the Facebook group "Replika Friends".

The study will be conducted from a qualitative interpretative perspective. To achieve RO1, I will analyse media discussion on the commercial companion bots Woebot, Wysa and Replika, using multimodal critical discourse analysis (Machin, 2013) to discern public narratives and debates about these technologies. I will analyse approximately 50 UK and US online news articles sampled from major broadsheet and tabloid newspapers, focusing on peaks in coverage between 2017 (when the bots were launched) and 2021. To address RO2 I will conduct in-depth semi-structured qualitative interviews with approximately 30 (or until theoretical saturation is reached) Replika users on how they perceive the bots. To achieve RO3 I will combine the analysis of interview findings with two additional kinds of data: the analysis of screenshots of interaction between users and their 'replikas' (requested from users) and a six-month digital ethnography of the Facebook group "Replika Friends", where users frequently debate their relationship with Replika. Digital ethnography is a method suitable for analyzing online communities (Pink et al, 2013). The interviews and interaction with the bot as a well as the data from the online community will be in the first instance, analysed using multimodal thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006). Given the enthusiasm for mental health apps shown by governments, health services, and the public (Hollis, 2015) combined with the renewed interest in communicative AI (Guzman & Lewis, 2019) the project is particularly timely and will identify potential ethical and social implications of the use of AI companions and similar AI technologies. Furthermore, it investigates how individuals experience commercial AI companions, when such mental health apps remain controversial.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000711/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2413897 Studentship ES/P000711/1 01/10/2020 30/09/2024 Iliana Depounti