Tag Archives: studies

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.

Chocolate, Correlation, Causation, and Depression

A recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine has attracted a lot of media attention. ‘Chocolate and Depressive Symptoms in a Cross-sectional Analysis‘ has been written up in a number of newspapers here in the United States, often in the ‘oddly enough’ news sections, which is where ‘whimsical’ news about scientific studies often seems to end up.

There’s kind of a long history of media outlets writing up studies on food and twisting or ignoring the conclusions of those studies. Contradictory information about food is readily available through the media and sometimes there are very serious problems with the framing of these ‘oddly enough’ food stories. Like the claims that red wine is good for your heart, which ignored the fact that most studies supporting this claim pointed out that you would have to drink a lot of red wine to achieve cardiovascular benefits.

Two chocolate bars, a Richfield's Dark with Raspberries, and a Whittaker's Dark Caramel, shown in their wrappers.

The chocolate study involved 1018 subjects from San Diego, 931 of whom were not taking antidepressants. Researchers used the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (CES-D) to gauge levels of depression among the participants, and then collected information about chocolate consumption. What they found is that people with higher scores on the Scale tended to consume more chocolate. For people with very high scores, chocolate consumption was doubled.

The conclusion?

Higher CES-D depression scores were associated with greater chocolate consumption. Whether there is a causal connection, and if so in which direction, is a matter for future prospective study.

The media jumped on this study with headlines like ‘Study links chocolate and depression.’ ‘Study: Chocolate and depression go hand in hand.’ ‘Say it ain’t so: Study links chocolate to depression.’ And so on. Some articles went right ahead and used the ’cause’ word.

These articles theorize that either depression triggers chocolate cravings, or chocolate makes people depressed. They’ve made the classic mistake of conflating correlation and causation. abby jean has talked about this problem elsewhere on FWD, discussing the problem of bias in studies and bias in the way people talk about scientific studies. Recently, I discussed some of the problems with tests administered to measure levels of depression in ‘Internet Use and Depression.’

There are a couple of questions which should be asked about a study like this. The first is how the sample was chosen. Because I can’t access the full text, I can’t answer this question (someone who has read the study is welcome to chime in in comments). One thing which is notable is that this study took place in the United States. Here in the States, eating chocolate to  improve mood is a learned behaviour, and thus I can’t say that I was terribly surprised to  learn that people in the US who appear to be depressed are eating more chocolate. Since this study took place in a country where people believe that there is a link between chocolate and mood, it’s possible that some observer bias was involved in this study.

People believe that chocolate will make them feel better when they’re down1. In other cultures, there are other comfort foods which people eat to make themselves feel better. It would be interesting to see a cross-cultural study. As it stands now, we know that chocolate consumption appears to be higher in depressed residents of San Diego, California.

Another question about this study is whether the researchers controlled for other dietary factors or behaviours. Apparently they did control for ‘common’ factors like caffeine and carbohydrates, but it’s unclear how far they drilled down. Is it possible that people with depression also eat a lot of, say, peas? Brazil nuts? It’s impossible to control for everything, of course, but food and diet are complex issues and we’re still learning a lot about how food works, the compounds in food, and how different foods interact.

Furthermore, the study was not long term. More meaningful results might be obtained with a more extended study tracking people over months or years. It would also be immensely helpful to have subjects keep complete food and activity diaries to generate a spread of data which could be used to look at other things which might be correlated with depression.

Chemically, chocolate is incredibly complex, especially when you start talking about all of the varieties of chocolate available. There could be something going on here, but it would take a lot more research to find out.

  1. The jury is out on this one science wise. Some studies suggest that compounds in chocolate are mood elevators although they may work only in the short term. Others suggest that there’s no effect on mood. Others suggest that compounds in chocolate might actually work the other way around. And, of course, many studies like to take the time to point out that chocolate makes people fat and fat is bad, ergo, people who eat chocolate will be sad because they are fat.

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.