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Maybe The Internet Doesn't Actually Hurt Mental Health

A new study challenges the widely held belief that the internet is bad for well-being.

Originally Published: 
A man lying on his bed, looking at his cell phone.
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It’s widely accepted that the internet, although invaluable for the spread of information, isn’t great for our mental health. From doomscrolling to online games to social media, to the simple fact that it causes us to spend too much time staring at screens and not enough moving around or out in nature, there are many conceivable ways the internet could be making us anxious, depressed, and less satisfied with our lives. But a new study argues that there isn’t nearly enough evidence to back up the common belief that the internet harms our mental health and well-being.

For the new study, published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, researchers from the University of Oxford aimed to get a better sense of whether mental health has changed on a global scale in the past two decades that internet access has become more widespread — and whether increased internet use can predict worsening mental health outcomes in individual countries.

To do so, the researchers first analyzed a huge amount of data about yearly internet use in 168 countries and the well-being of their citizens over 16 years. Measures of well-being included self-reports of life satisfaction, positive experiences, and negative experiences from more than 2.4 million people aged 15 to 89.

The researchers found little-to-no evidence that well-being worsened when internet use increased within a country. Although the data was somewhat all over the place between different countries — sometimes well-being improved as internet use increased, and sometimes it declined — there wasn’t a consistent link between use and well-being. Additionally, there were no differences in the link between well-being and internet adoption for at-risk groups like young women.

Next, the researchers analyzed another huge dataset on internet use and mental health outcomes — including rates of anxiety, depression, and self-harm — from 202 countries over 19 years.

The second study’s findings were very similar to the first. Over the study period, there have only been small changes in rates of mental health problems — increasing rates of anxiety and decreasing rates of depression — if these changes are statistically meaningful at all. And if they do exist, there is not a statistically meaningful link to internet adoption.

“Our results do not provide evidence supporting the view that the Internet and technologies enabled by it, such as smartphones with internet access, are actively promoting or harming either well-being or mental health globally,” the authors write.

“We looked very hard for a ‘smoking gun’ linking technology and well-being and we didn’t find it,” senior researcher Andrew Przybylski, a professor of human behavior and technology, said in a press release.

“We meticulously tested whether there is anything special in terms of age or gender, but there is no evidence to support popular ideas that certain groups are more at risk,” Przybylski added.

So how does the new study stack up against previous research that, for example, has found connections between internet use and depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and impulsiveness? Such studies suffered from methodological shortcomings, the researchers write. For example, some struggled to accurately measure participants’ internet engagement. Others included biased pools of participants, such as those chosen based on convenience rather than random sampling, and the vast majority have been conducted in the Global North. Because of this, it’s impossible to say whether internet use is truly linked to poorer well-being or mental health.

Although this research supporting the connection between internet use and mental health issues “attracts attention and click...the standards of evidence are quite poor,” Przybylski told the Financial Times.

The new study is far from conclusive, however, and does have methodological problems of its own. For one, it treats all internet use as the same and doesn’t distinguish between different activities on the web, like watching educational videos versus using social media. It also doesn’t account for potential confounding variables that may have changed with a country’s internet adoption, such as GDP or educational levels, which could potentially dampen any negative effects of increasing internet use on mental health and well-being.

That said, the study is an important wake-up call that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about internet use and well-being.

“Thought leaders and some policy folks claim there is a global mental health epidemic caused by the internet, but they do not bother to collect [and] wrangle data to support this extraordinary claim," Przybylski told Mashable.

He continued, "I am sure that technology use has its ups and downs, but we'll never be able to map this out, and intervene if necessary, if we don't have objective data on how, why, and when people engage with online worlds.”

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