Internet Use and Depression

Readers may be aware of a study published earlier this year which seemed to suggest a link between Internet use and depression. “The Relationship Between Excessive Internet Use and Depression” was published by researchers at the University of Leeds. A number of news outlets picked the story up, with a variety of sensational headlines. Given that news outlets have been publishing scare articles for years about how the Internet makes everyone isolated and depressed, I’m always curious to delve a little bit more deeply into the studies cited to see if they actually came to the conclusions reported in the media.

Science reporting in the mainstream media can be pretty dubious. Journalists exaggerate conclusions or massage the numbers so that they can have a more extreme headline or so that they can make stronger claims in their articles. And few articles examine or question the methodology of the studies they report on. I don’t think this is because journalists reporting on science don’t know how to question methodology. I think it’s because they think that the general public is not interested or isn’t capable of following.

I think that’s an erroneous assumption. Depriving members of the public of deeper analysis on the assumption that they aren’t interested or can’t follow is just insulting. And since this study is being bandied about a lot, I thought it might be worth discussing it here. Please note that I am not a scientist, so I’m not really qualified to critique scientific methodologies in-depth, at all; other contribs and readers are scientists and may have additional thoughts which I would love to read in comments.

The first question to ask when looking at a study is how the sample was selected. In this case, it was a convenience sample, which makes the conclusions of the study less firm. The study was based on an online questionnaire, which 1,319 people responded to. However, respondents were sought out with advertisements on social networking sites based in the United Kingdom. That’s immediately self-selecting and limiting; respondents were limited not to the entire pool of people using the Internet, but to English speaking people utilizing social networking sites in the United Kingdom who clicked on ads. And, of course, people who don’t use the Internet could not be used as a basis for comparison in the study because they weren’t recruited.

Over at [citation needed], Tal Yarkoni points out that using this sample methodology is “…the equivalent of trying to establish cell phone usage patterns by randomly dialing only land-line numbers” in his critique “internet uses causes depression! or not.” (By the way, I would highly recommend reading his critique of the study, which gets into much more detail about the methodology and includes things like numbers! And citations!)

Participants were asked to fill out three separate surveys: the Internet Function Questionnaire, which is designed to assess the proportion of time online spent doing various activities; the Internet Addiction Test, used to assess whether or not someone might be classified with Internet addiction; and the Beck Depression Inventory, a popular metric for depression assessment. Using the responses, the researchers found that there appeared to be a correlation between Internet addiction and depression.

But does that correlation really hold up?

There are some serious problems with the framing of the questionnaires used in this study. For example, people are asked to respond to questions like “do you think you spend too much time online,” but the researchers did not directly ask users to report on how much time they spend online. “Too much time” for one person might be five hours a week, for someone else it might be 72 hours a week. Self reporting in general is also flawed because respondents may be primed to respond in one way or another. If self reporting cannot be backed up with additional data, it can be a bit dodgy. How do we decide when Internet use becomes “excessive,” especially since that probably varies from person to person?

And let’s examine the questions used in the Internet Addiction Test a bit more closely, because some of them might surprise you.

“How often do you form new relationships with fellow online users?” Hi, FWD readers! This site exists solely because of the formation of new relationships with online users; all of the FWD contributors met online. Indeed, FWD is structured around the formation of new relationships with online users, as is a lot of the blogosphere. Especially for people with disabilities, the Internet can actually be a really valuable source of interpersonal connections. Several FWD contributors rarely leave their homes and use the Internet as a primary resource for socialisation, and it would not surprise me at all to learn that some FWD readers fall into the same category. For me, for example, forming new relationships with fellow online users is a source of enrichment.

“How often do you fear that life without the Internet would be boring, empty, and joyless?” That’s a pretty loaded question. Empty and joyless? Not so much, for me, but perhaps for some. Boring? Yes. Although I can’t say that I “fear” this, it’s more something that I note. As I discussed above, for people with disabilities, the Internet provides opportunities for socialisation which would not be available otherwise. Both of these questions seem to assume that the only people who use the Internet are able and that there’s no way that Internet relationships and communities could replace real life ones. Or that for people who do the majority of their socialisation online, their socialisation somehow is not real, or is lesser than real life socialisation.

“How often do you feel preoccupied with the Internet when off-line, or fantasize about being on-line?” Fairly frequently, given that I have the keys to several servers and I fret about them when I’m not around. Which is fairly understandable, just like it’s understandable for people to worry about the welfare of things they are responsible for in the real world. Like other questions in the test, this privileges outside world concerns over online ones, and seems to ignore the role that the Internet can play in some lives.

I’m not going to go through all of the questions; I just wanted to give you a small sampling. Some of these questions are rather leading, and they don’t fully consider the fact that people communicate and socialise in different ways. I am apparently “experiencing occasional or frequent problems because of the Internet [and] should consider their full impact on [my] life,” according to my responses.

Correlation is not causation, as I frequently mutter to myself when reading or listening to science reporting. When you get down to it, the sample size was too small and too flawed to be meaningfully applied to the population, and it ignored an important question: If there is a correlation between Internet use and depression in the general population, is it because the Internet depresses people? Or is it because people with depression are more likely to use the Internet? And if that’s the case, is that a bad thing? I don’t think so.

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

21 thoughts on “Internet Use and Depression

  1. For me, I use the internet and I’m depressed, becuase it makes me feel better. If I’m not able to go out, or see my friends, I still have great writing to read and people to talk to on here and other sites.

    One would think at least some social interaction for people who want it, but are stopped by other things is good, but maybe that’s why I don’t write scary headlines..

  2. Or is it because people with depression are more likely to use the Internet?

    YES YES ME HI HI HI. A certain amount of baseline internet usage allows me to manage my generalized anxiety when I’m feeling “well” (which, I’ve come to realize, is probably significantly less “well” than non-mentally-ill people feel) by means of streaming TV, reading FWD/forward, etc. When I’m depressed, I spend more time online (streaming TV, usually) and less time interacting face-to-face with people.

    Studies like this one really concern me because I can’t imagine what my adolescence would have been like or what my life would be like now without the support of online communities. While some of my online interactions weren’t always the healthiest, I think that talking to people and receiving validation of my personhood online at a time when I wasn’t getting much of that in the real world was definitely better for me than not having any peer relationships at all.

  3. just like it’s understandable for people to worry about the welfare of things they are responsible for in the real world

    Don’t be silly! Everyone knows that the internet isn’t part of the real world, therefore the things on there don’t count as responsibilities!


    I like how nearly every study done about internet usage comes from a predetermined conclusion, and completely fails to take into account the differences between correlation and causation. Way to go, science! You’re sure making yourself look good!

    I remember my last therapist wanted me to socialize more, when I explained that I spend hours a day socializing with friends online, she was like “No, I mean real socializing. In the real world.” Dude, if I had friends who lived near me, I’d be fucking socializing with them all the time. As it is, I take money I don’t have and time I don’t have and resources I don’t have and drive eight hours for a weekend with my bff (who I met on the internet and primarily communicate with through the internet because we both have issues with phones) every couple months. I really don’t think that my issue is lack of socializing with human beings.

    (Basically, what I am trying to say here, is that I get incredibly defensive over this!)

    Also, I find it really interesting that the majority of these studies come from people to whom the internet is something new. I mean, as of now, there are few people (if any) from my generation (ie, the first generation to have pervasive internet availability since their late teens) and none from the generation that literally grew up with the internet. Which, hey, is understandable! Because both generations are kind of young and don’t do Serious Scientific Studies yet! It will be interesting to see what sort of research and conclusions we get when those generations do start looking into internet usage and the like.

  4. i hate this kind of article, that assumes that relationships formed online or business conducted online is somehow detracting from “real life” enjoyment. i think about online stuff when i’m offline because i have real relationships with real people that are facilitated through the communication medium of the internet. i don’t see that as qualitatively different from thinking about meatspace friends when i’m not actually in their presence.

    i’d love to go back in time and find similar scare articles about the telephone. “how often do you speak with people on the telephone rather than in person? if ever, you may be experiencing problems because of the telephone and should consider its full impact on your life.”

  5. I do think I personally have a problem with the amount of time I spend on the internet, because once I start I find it difficult to get off and I use it as a way of procrastinating and avoiding things. I always intend to take a break/go to bed/ do some work, but I almost never do.

    On the other hand the internet (even though I’m kind of a lurker) has been a crucial source of communication and information to me that I couldn’t access in meatspace, either because of my depression/anxiety or my chronic physical illness, so I’m very wary of the idea that internet relationships are not real and that excessive internet usage causes rather than correlates with depression.

    The other problem with “internet addiction” is that for most jobs/degrees you need to use the internet and so it’s not something that you can just disengage from if you find it difficult to stop using.

    I feel very conflicted over the whole issue and simplistic journalism doesn’t help, so thanks for the post.

  6. Thanks for the corrective to this annoying trend of calling online activity “not real.” Before the internet existed, I spent a lot of time reading. It was one way of coping with my depression. I still read, offline and on, but using the internet has allowed me to connect directly with some of the people whose words I read in a way that books never did. Not only do I connect with them imaginatively or spiritually through their words, i can actually communicate with them, or communicate with other readers, talk, debate, cry together, laugh together. I now have several friends I only know online, and a few people I met through our internet use. those people have been so supportive of me in my stuggles with depression, and not just because we talk about it, but because they make me laugh, they make me feel grounded and supported, they teach me, they are generous and share with me.
    Yes, I have “real” friends, and I social “in real life” but those people are busy and they are often NOT the ones who can or want to hear about my struggles or suffering, nor do i want to share it with them.

  7. Your last paragraph says it all, really.

    I play mindless computer games when I’m stressed or depressed. Am a stressed/depressed because of the games? No. The games are a coping mechanism. So is socializing, and online socializing is frankly easier–I can easily log off if it’s too much or gets too stressful. It’s harder to walk away IRL. I can do it when I can’t sleep at 2 am, because other people on the internet are also having trouble sleeping, or live in different timezones. The whole “internet socializing is not real” thing really irks me.

    I know I spend “too much” time on the internet when depressed, but it’s not a cause. And it certainly doesn’t isolate me–it connects me with other people who share my obscure interests, people who live all over the world. There is not exactly a huge pool of 16th century English embroidery enthusiasts local to me in Colorado, you know? For example. Internet socializing makes me feel less depressed when I am depressed, not more so. If I didn’t have the internet, I would probably “read too much” or “play too many computer games” or “do nothing but crafts.” But just because an activity can be used as a coping mechanism doesn’t make it inherently bad (and personally? I think coping mechanisms are far better than the alternative).

    (By the way, you have a [citation needed] for the link to Tal Yarkoni’s blog.)

  8. @Mel: “[citation needed]” is, in fact, the title of Yarkoni’s blog.

    As for online socialization, one thing I’ve found in my own experience is that communicating online is easier for me than in-person. It’s hard enough to find people locally who I feel like I can communicate with openly, without feeling like I have to hide anything– I wouldn’t doubt that there are people of that disposition, but I have no idea how to go about finding them other than sheer chance. Most of the people I do communicate with online are hundreds of miles away, so it’s not as if I have a chance of seeing them in person. And even for the local people with whom I do actually get along well, just getting to a meeting place is often an exercise in stress (particularly if it requires bus transfers or arranging rides!), and processing spoken language quickly saps my energy reserves in a way that online textual communication doesn’t.

    And double all of that for comparing online socialization to phone calls. Sure, it’s easier to connect with long-distance people– but there’s no visual feedback whatsoever, and the audio is muffled making it even harder to decipher, so it’s even more rapidly exhausting. As stressful as in-person meetings may be, phone calls are even more so for me.

    So the internet is how a large part of my socialization takes place– and it provides the same environment that other media likely do for a lot of people.

  9. When I’m depressed, I tend to withdraw from people, including those I interact with online. I lost contact with a lot of people like that and it sucked, so the next time I got depressed, I had one person I chatted with so I wouldn’t be totally disconnected from everyone. How I chose that person is actually a long story, but the short version is we’d been chatting a lot prior to that point and we’d gotten pretty close, so he was more than willing to keep that up. That was a few years ago. I’ve been living with him for about three years now and he’s just as supportive of me as he was then. I hate these studies that try to frame internet communication as total evil.

  10. …wow. When I read the first few lines my mind already started going “correlation =/= causation! and besides, if I had to venture a guess as to the way the causation goes it would be depression => increased internet use, not the other way around!” But apparently the study didn’t even give evidence for correlation? Wow. Those are some *serious* flaws in the study design there, I don’t even know where to begin.

    I admit that usually, if I see a report a la “scientists prove that [trite fact meant to reinforce various prejudices]”, I assume the study is fine but doesn’t show anything even near to what the media claims it does, except that it may possibly show the exact opposite. Looks as if this time I need to offer an apology to the science journalists as the study was actually that bad.

    I tend to get quite angry when people suggest online communication is inferior, because half the time they will support it by something like “there is no body language!” and talk about how you can’t possibly properly communicate like that! it is so empty! And, seriously, do not expect me to look kindly on your sonnets to the wonderful beauty of nonverbal communication that gets tragically lost online, given that I am autistic and can pick up more of that online than in RL. (Smileys and font effects.) There are also many many reasons why I am bad at verbal communication in certain ways, many many reasons I am bad at *real-time* conversation in certain ways (I am hearing a lot of what you are saying about processing spoken language and phonecalls, codeman38), many many reasons I am bad at *face-to-face* conversation in certain ways, which culminate in things like me not being properly capable of disagreeing with people or having an argument except via writing. The internet is a godsend.

    Also, anecdotal evidence: I’m pretty sure my depression caused me to spend a lot of time online, and that in fact the time spent online did a lot to help my depression. There were a few years in there where I was not capable of forming meaningful offline relationships, I really don’t want to think about what that would have been like without online communities.

  11. I can’t believe that as part of their controls they didn’t first determine whether the people they were studying/surveying already suffered from depression! Replace depression with, say, CANCER or PREGNANCY and that would kind of be a given … What the ….?

  12. I know that my depression and my internet use are most likely not linked, partially because my depression is very much hereditary–and my grandmother never goes online. XD I mostly stay on the internet as often as I do (as opposed to going out and doing things) because I suffer from chronic pain, fatigue, and illness. Sometimes, all I can do is sit in bed and open my laptop.

    Whenever people tell me to go out in the real world instead of making friends online, I gotta admit that it frustrates me. Don’t they think I want to? It upsets me when I can’t go out, but sometimes it’s just not an option.

  13. The internet (born in ’88) has been very important in my life, especially with all those fun illnesses and staying home for most of a school year!

    No, I didn’t have the same social interactions my sister did, but I did interact. I can mark illnesses/homebound periods by where I spent the most time, where I spent time interacting with people. Compuserve chatrooms (hush it!), neopets (don’t even), and finally politics mixed with some healthy bits of nonsense and fun (starting at imdb and moving to a private board).

    I still suffered cabin fever and depression from my circumstances, but without people around the world to talk to… my family and I probably wouldn’t have made it. It’s a good outlet. (Also, I made friends with a woman who sent me a huge box of old MADs and just asked me to pay shipping. We’ve drifted, as you do, but still. Warm moment.)

    I did learn one thing about the internet and moods – I should not, while browsing and killing time before class, read two articles about the economy. Luckily I cheered up with a good Bolly song and complete mangling of what my French prof told us the week before.

  14. I’m old enough to have spent much of my life before I was online. (I was a late adopter too; I had email and played MUDs in college then stayed offline for years, getting back on around the turn of the century.) I was depressed before I got online, I assure you. Had depressive psychosis before I got online and wasn’t that entertaining?

    If it weren’t for the internet I wouldn’t have much of a social life. Even with the friends I have who live near by I do much of my socializing with them online. It’s physically more comfortable — getting out of the apartment takes a lot out of me and there isn’t really space for people to come here. And I’d much rather have a conversation by email or on a forum than in person. Using my voice isn’t great for me and most conversations move way too fast for me to track well especially if there’s more than one other person. I get talked over and interrupted a lot; I speak softly and there are longish pauses that many people take for full stops. Even instant messaging and IRC are faster than I like. I don’t edit as well and I feel like I say something stupid or hurt someone and I really don’t like hurting people.

    So I withdraw from those spaces. It’s better for me to be in spaces where instantaneous responses aren’t expected.
    .-= kaninchenzero´s last blog ..Re: Trust Me =-.

  15. As I recall, there *was* a fair bit of shame slung in the 60s and 70s over using the telephone to ‘avoid’ face-to-face visits, especially of aged relatives.

    The ‘Internet Addiction Survey’ looks to me as if it were designed solely for able-bodied neurotypical people who use computers and the Net primarily or exclusively for casual entertainment, and it clearly regards the Net itself as a separate and potentially dangerous entity from ‘real life,’ rather than a means to facilitate communication. And in addition to privileging face-to-face communication, I suspect there’s an underlying hierarchy for other means of communication at work as well, probably (at a guess) with the telephone at the top and in-game communications at the bottom – likely excluding altogether the publishing aspect of the Net, the wide variety of newspapers, books, videos, music and the like available on it.

    I noticed, too, there was no ‘Never’ ticky-box. A ‘Does not apply’ one, but no ‘Never’ – so there’s an assumption that everyone at some point engages in each of its behaviors, and since ‘Does not apply’ usually means you’re not in a given situation – school, work – it not-so-subtly shoves respondents into ticking ‘Rarely’ anyway.

    I think, with all these kinds of studies, articles, and so on … there’s an underlying but rarely if ever acknowledged ideal of … the matrix of our lives and what it ought to be like as well – one that erases geographical distance and social variations and divisions and really just about everything – that assumes that all of our communities … at least have the *potential* to be just like that Dick and Jane lived in. (Dick and Jane were the protagonists of a series of elementary school primers in use in the U.S. from the 1930s to the 70s, very middle-class, white, able-bodied, etc.) That communities like that have never actually existed doesn’t ever seem to matter, let alone whether or not we’d even want to live in them if they did.

  16. I know for a fact that I would have continued to self-harm when I was in my worst depressive period if it weren’t for the friends I’d made online. I would not have gotten help, I probably would have gotten worse, and I don’t want to think about what would have happened to me in the end if they hadn’t urged me to find help and stick with it.

    Also, everything else everybody else said. WORD.

  17. I interact with people in the “real world” all day at work, upwards of 80 hours a week. These interactions can be stressful under the best of circumstances. My coworkers are, for the most part, well meaning neurotypical, non-disabled people. On any given day, I find myself called upon to educate, explain or justify why I do or don’t eat something due to diabetes, why I type and use a cane due to cerebral palsy, or why I sit when they think I should stand or stand when they think I should sit, due to chronic pain. I live in a land of split loyalties, as a disabled and chronically ill health care provider, constantly trying to explain the mores of each group to the other.

    What a relief to come home and interact, online, with people who don’t tell me I should “just” wear a backpack, eat sugar free cookies, or get occupational therapy to fix my handwriting, who don’t need to be asked not to refer to children with disabiliites with pity, or adults with mental health conditions with derision. I can communicate with others who have cerebral palsy, or with college friends who don’t assume that cerebral palsy is invariably linked with cognitive impairment. I don’t have to explain, patiently, over and over, that I don’t want to have a boyfriend or get married. Online, there are safe places to be asexual. I don’t have to explain, over and over, why I prefer books to movies, and I’m not judged for failing to grasp references to pop cultural icons.

    It’s not a real world, to be sure, since it’s a world that comes close to accepting me as I am and permits me to persuse my own interests. And I don’t think it’s a failing in me that I can’t get those interactions offline. My real life friends are scattered about the country and I might see them once a year in person. Would the internet detractors prefer that I sit around the other 264 days of the year and mope?

    My life offline be more real, but my interactions online are often more genuine.

  18. @Nightengale “Would the internet detractors prefer that I sit around the other 264 days of the year and mope?”

    Yes, because it would be “real.”

    I don’t think people who prefer computer interaction (I like the control, no one minds if it takes me a couple days to come up with a witty rejoinder) for various reasons will be considered “normal” for a few generations, until my generation starts running these studies. And people rarely think of PWD, and a survey of 1,319 self-selected people will especially ignore us. It would be interesting to do a study on PWD who are “baby boomers” or my mom’s age (teenager in late ’70s) and see how the advent of the internet has impacted their life.

    My therapist is only a few years older than me, so she’s not entirely dismissive of the internet and socialization on it. She thinks this place is good for me.

    Also, people are asking questions about diabetes? (Not doubting you, just rolling my eyes at them.) Diabetes seems pretty mainstream – there was a girl in my middle school class who had it, my paternal grandfather had it, Stacey in the Babysitter’s Club had it… it just doesn’t seem like it should still be a big deal to coworkers/onlookers, but people’s capacity for deliberate ignorance never ceases to amaze me.

    (A classmate didn’t care why I was standing in one high school class my senior year, but I looked lonely, so she stood with me. I wish I remembered who she was!)

  19. For myself, I’ve found the internet to be a godsend for the past twelve years (I first got online in about 1997) – I’ve met people online I’d never have met in person. I’ve done things I’d never otherwise have done (such as travelling overseas to a Discworld fan convention), and learned a lot of things which make my life a lot more interesting. I’ve found any number of peer groups, and for someone who spent their school years extremely socially isolated, this is a good thing. My depression is something which I’ve had all along, but I can sincerely say that even with the depression deepening on a regular basis every year, the years I’ve been online have been a lot better than the ones preceding them. At least online I know I can rant, rave, throw things at the metaphorical wall, and vent my anger with the universe. In the so-called Real World (TM) if I do these things, I’m looked at as though I’m systematically killing kittens and eating them (hmm… maybe I should try that).

    Either way, whether I’m at my worst or my best, I can generally find someone online who’s willing to help me out, or cheer me on. They’re people who live in different countries to me, or a different state, or different parts of the same state, or even different parts of the same city. But they’re people I wouldn’t have met any other way, and a lot of them are people who have helped me to stay sane (even though they might not know it).

Comments are closed.