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.

7 Comments

  1. The safe space suggestion sounds plausible to me!

  2. Related to the safe spaces, the internet also offers the possibility of finding people with similar interests. From knitting to social justice work, the sense of “there are other people who are passionate about the things that are important to me” can definitely increase happiness. And the gender-difference could be explained by the fact that men (who fit into the accepted forms of maleness) have more opportunities in the “real world” to experience that community, as male interests are considered valuable and spaces for discussion and exchange of experiences are provided.

    (I suspect that there might be a similar effect for members of other oppressed groups, who have interests/ problems/ political movements that are often ignored in the mainstream media and culture)

  3. Not just safe spaces, but *their own* spaces. Even on Facebook, you can carve yourself out a world where it’s just you and your friends and you don’t have to deal with the majority of the world’s crap unless you go looking for it.

  4. “Happiness” studies are notoriously problematic, because there is no standard set of criteria in sociology or research psychology that measures happiness, so when comparing studies, you are usually talking about very different metrics. For example, the study the study from the previous post was looking at internet addiction and depression, when this study is just looking at general users. Internet Addiction is already a notoriously problematic category. It is not (yet) a diagnosis in the DSM-IV. Nick Yee has a great internet article that problematizes “IA” here: http://www.nickyee.com/daedalus/archives/001494.php. (The guy has a published paper on this somewhere. I just can’t seem to find it this morning.)

    Yee advances the pretty intuitive thesis that people use the internet problematically when other things are not going well in their lives. Thus, people who use the internet problematically were already depressed in the first place and come to the internet seeking a sense of power, meaning, belonging, and control. The notion that it’s the internet that actually makes people depressed strikes me as pretty silly.

  5. Ignore scientific studies and do what you want. For something to be … um… something… you have to get the same/similar results in repeated experiments. So do another study. There – my science education put to use!

    The internet is a boon to people in so many ways – the safe space is a great example. But it’s also good if you don’t want to deal with people all the time, and you can just close it. (And come back 10 minutes later all riled up…)

    Another thing about the internet is that it reminds me of library posters – books can take you places. True. But so can the internet, and more than that, I’m not reading a TAB author’s version of a blind person’s life, I’m reading what the blind person says.

    The internet makes me happy – I’ve made friends and 2 of those friends have given me things – Indian DVDs and a huge box of old Mad magazines. So it wins!

    But watching an Andy Griffith (I love Barney and hate Andy – he’s arrogant and always right) episode about a “Lonely Hearts’ Club” and reading Peanuts where Charlie Brown writes to his “pencil pal,” I wish we could do that now, because I still get a thrill at getting mail. (Why else would I have Netflix? For the movies? Ha!) But there’s always someone to talk to online… and you don’t need good penmanship.

  6. The Internet makes me happy, too. It helps me connect to people – I even me tmy boyfriend online. It also helps me communicate my thoughts, which helps me distract from distress.

  7. I love the internet a lot as well. The internet didn’t cause my depression or anxiety, but it’s something that’s helpful. When I can’t leave the house, due to lack of car and my feelings about people, I’m still able to get some socializing in and pursue my interests.