The Not-So Depressing Truth About the Internet
Check your email often? Love YouTube? Chat with your friends online? Poor, poor you. With many Americans spending more than 40 hours a week…
Check your email often? Love YouTube? Chat with your friends online? Poor, poor you. With many Americans spending more than 40 hours a week online, this type of Internet usage seems par for the course. A recent study mentioned in the New York Times, however, links these activities to depression.
Thankfully, correlation does not imply causation; two things that appear to be related may not be. By ignoring the who and what behind the data, the study overlooks the positive aspects of online interactions.
Sriram Chellappan and Raghavendra Kotikalapudi, who led the study, had 216 undergraduate students at the Missouri Institute of Science and Technology fill out a questionnaire that measured symptoms of depression. After finding that about a third tested positive, they had the school’s IT department look at the campus Internet usage data for the participants. The data was general; traffic flow and internet usage, which can tell you what types of sites were being visited (video hosting sites, for example, use up a lot of bandwidth), was tracked.
Researchers found a positive trend between a participant’s level of depression and certain types of Internet usage, such as file sharing, video watching, gaming, and chatting. The study noted that participants with depressive symptoms tended to engage in very high email usage, and that depressive people frequently switched between Internet applications like email, chat rooms and games.
Apparently this fits right in with other psychological research. The study cites research by psychologists Janet Morahan-Martin and Phyllis Schumacher and the National Institute of Mental Health that shows that frequent checking of email may relate to high levels of anxiety, and that switching between applications indicates difficulty concentrating, both of which correlate with depressive symptoms.
The Internet Doesn’t Work That Way
Another study by the National Institute of Health, however, found that while people who used the Internet to look up health-related topics had a small but reliable increase in depression, those who used it for communication with friends and family had a similar decrease. That study concluded that the Internet is a way to strengthen and maintain social ties. If college students are spending large amounts of time emailing and chatting with their family and friends back at home, they are likely to have stronger mental states.
The conclusions of the first study fail to take into account the reasons behind human action. Sure, I may be checking my email frequently because I’m anxious and depressed, but I may also be anxious and depressed because I get so much email. Or perhaps I’m checking it because I have a super hot Japanese penpal. I may be switching between applications because I can’t concentrate, or maybe I’m multitasking to optimize productivity.
Furthermore, the fact that the data was context-free means that it provides an incomplete picture. The breadth of experiences available online, and information such as which site was visited and which video was watched, could make an enormous difference in the way data is viewed. The study only noted that students were watching videos in general — in their effort to remain scientific and impartial, Chellappan and Kotikalapudi ignore the crucial factor of context.
Play me off, Keyboard Cat!
The authors of the study have a noble goal: they hope to create a program that monitors your Internet usage and alerts you when it signals symptoms of depression. This could push people to seek help earlier and improve their treatments. But all the trends and correlations noticed by the study are just associations, not hard cause and effect. It is important to note that the full study has not been published yet; further review may reveal more hard data. Until then, it may be foolish to believe someone can be psychoanalyzed by the barest sketch of what they do online.
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