Is there a correlation between internet usage and depression?
A recent study at the Missouri University of Science and Technology found that students were more likely to use the internet, file-share and send emails when they were feeling blue – going as far to say it could be an indicator of depression.
Researchers from the university hope to use this study to help diagnose depression in the future with cost-effective, in-home monitoring software. But could data from online activity really point to a dip in mental health when people use the internet for a wealth of different reasons?
The students involved were asked to take tests which determined whether they showed signs of depression, the researchers then correlated those results with a month’s worth of internet data collected at random.
The team concluded that those who did suffer with their mental health were more likely to play games, email and chat online.
Dr. Sriram Chellapp, an assistant professor of computer science at the university said: “The study is believed to be the first that uses actual internet data, collected unobtrusively and anonymously, to associate internet usage with signs of depression.”
He claims that previous research was the result of endless surveys which he says are a far less accurate representation of how people use the internet.
“This is because when students themselves reported their volume and type of internet activity, the amount of internet usage data is limited because people’s memories fade with time,” he added.
This sparked my interest to such a degree that I put my feelers out on Twitter in hope of finding people who were willing to talk about their experiences with depression and internet usage. Do people who follow me on Twitter use the internet differently?
One of my repliers, Louise Goldrick, 20, from Manchester, claimed that although she fell into the trap of using the web to run away from her problems, she also found herself in a worse place for it.
“When you’re lost and don’t have the motivation to do anything, you try to find other ways to spend your time; mine was to trawl the web for hours on end,” she said.
“I became isolated with my computer, sometimes even forgetting to eat because I was glued to my screen. Any free time was spent using my computer, but it wasn’t always positive. The internet made me lonely and paranoid – with so much material available, I would research my depression for countless hours and convince myself that I was suffering from bigger issues than I was in reality.”
She added: “I definitely think there’s a link between depression and increased internet usage. But whilst the web may be a good place to find support for mental health issues, using it as an escape from reality can sometimes do more harm than good.”
With internet trolls on the rise, reports hit news desks around the globe, almost weekly, of suicide attempts as a result of online bullying. The internet can be a scary place for those seeking solitude in its anonymity.
With an awesome amount of information available at just a few clicks of a mouse, the web will always feed paranoia and, as any expert will tell you, that’s probably the worst thing you can do. I know someone who marched in to her GP’s clinic demanding an MRI scan after concluding her ill-moods and bizarre thoughts must be the result of a brain tumor after researching various symptoms online.
She was, of course, refused the scan and psychiatrists across the country would argue that even if she had it, she would have tried to attribute her symptoms to something else.
Linda Ford, 35, a teacher, who suffers with depression as a result of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), thinks that the correlation between computer use and depression could simply be because people aren’t getting enough light.
She told me: “In my case, there can be a cause-and-effect relationship between computer use and depression, as I have SAD. This means that if I spend too much time on the computer rather than out and about in daylight I can become depressed after a couple of days. I am currently doing a computer-based study course, so this can be a problem.
Linda was also of the school that the online world could be her escape route from life and, therefore, her depression.
“At the same time, I do tend to take refuge on the computer during periods of depression,” she said. “I tend to visit the same few websites repeatedly, possibly because their familiarity is comforting at a time when I don’t feel up to doing anything much mentally or physically.”
She also said that she thought that the lack of exercise involved with heavy web surfing contributed to her depression but meeting like-minded people online was almost worth it.
Another email, from a woman wishing to remain anonymous, added another moving part to the perhaps oversimplified study.
“One thing I’d add is that for many depressed individuals, meeting people via online forums, fandom, gaming, support groups and so on can be a real lifeline, especially if they aren’t able to afford or access therapy,” she said.
In speaking to three different people, I came across three completely different views on how the internet affects their lives.
Trying to group sufferers of the same condition and different symptoms is not only pointless, but futile. Yes, we may use the internet differently but what do you expect from people who can feel both isolated and paranoid?
If anything, perhaps this study from Missouri University can lead to a far more useful one: working out why depression sufferers become withdrawn and working out how we can better do something about it.Tagged in: computers, depression, internet, mental illness, Missouri University of Science and Technology, online bullying, social networking
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