Internet Use and Happiness
Remember that study about Internet use and depression that we discussed recently?
Well, as it turns out, there’s another study out (yay science!) that says basically the exact opposite: information technology, including access to the Internet, has been linked with happiness. Does this mean that science is hopelessly contradictory and we should just ignore the results of scientific studies? No, it means that science is a constantly evolving and changing organism that is often poorly reported-on, and that when reporters make sweeping and categorical statements based on individual studies, studies that contradict those studies show up a few weeks later and reporters don’t know what to do with them. Of course, the IT study comes from a party that does not have a neutral interest in the matter; obviously, the Chartered Institute for Information Technology has, so to speak, a horse in the race here.
The thing about most studies that get reported on in the media is that they don’t draw firm conclusions. Often, the conclusion is ‘hey, this looks interesting, we should study it more.’ However, this is not the sort of thing that attracts readers, so reporters have to push the envelope rather a lot when it comes to science reporting. This is sometimes encouraged by scientists who know that money for future research will not be forthcoming with newspaper headlines like ‘Study of Limited Group of Subjects Reveals Potentially Interesting Information and the Need for Further Study’ or ‘Study Shows That Studying This More Would Probably Be a Good Idea.’
Thus, we end up with situations where it seems like every week the media is contradicting itself when it comes to talking about science. This is unfortunate, in my opinion, because it tends to undermine the awesomeness that is science. People get sour grapes or feel doubtful about the value of scientific studies because of all the contradiction and when a study comes out and really does say something, people go ‘right, it will be contradicted next week’ because this is what they are used to. (Possible headline: ‘Study Really Does Show This, We Are Not Kidding Y’All, Seriously, This Is For Real.’)
Anyway, on to the details of the information technology and happiness study.
The study, according to Time, ‘…analyzed data from 35,000 people across the globe who took part in the World Values Survey from 2005 to 2007. Looking at a number of social and economic factors that determine happiness — including gender, age, income and education — the survey showed that Internet use empowers people by increasing their feelings of security, personal freedom and influence.’
There are several notable findings from the study. One was that age didn’t appear to be a factor; no matter what age an IT user, benefits were experienced, which belies the claims that older adults don’t know how to use IT and can’t get benefits out of technology. People of low income and people in the developing world seemed to benefit more, a finding borne out by other studies that show that access to technology can improve quality of life for people in both these situations. IT, including the Internet, can provide people with powerful tools and resources. It opens up new opportunities. So it’s not surprising to learn that disadvantaged people experience benefits from interacting with information technology. Not that IT is the great equaliser (it’s not), but it creates possibilities.
The study showed that access was the important thing, as well, however people might get that access. This is very exciting to me because it validates efforts by organisations all over the world to get IT in some form into needy communities. It doesn’t necessarily have to be high speed and a laptop in every home; if a community Internet cafe can be established, it will have benefits for the community. If that cafe can be made safe, accessible, affordable, convenient to get to, and easy to access at all hours, that would provide access to a pretty broad swath of the community.
One finding that could not be explained was that women, in particular, seem to experience more IT-related happiness than men. There are all sorts of theories about it in the articles I’ve read on the study, but a lot of them rely on gender essentialism. This is something I notice repeatedly in science reporting; if something affects women, instead of being probed more deeply, it’s sort of written off and shoved to the back of the reporter’s mind. Clearly, if it involves women, it’s less-than; how many newspapers put stories featuring women in the ‘life and style’ section, no matter what they’re about?
The researchers noted that access to information technology provides people with a sense of ‘more freedom and control.’ This makes me wonder if the link here has to do with the denial of bodily autonomy, freedom, and control that women experience. Perhaps information technology is linked with happiness in women because it’s allowed them to create safe spaces. What do you think? Do you have a theory that might explain this finding?
It would be interesting to see this apparent link explored a little more in future studies.
Link found via reaching the shore.