The Null Device

"Internet addiction" and depression

Life imitates New Waver lyrics yet again: A psychological study at Leeds University has found a connection between depression and heavy internet use:
The authors found that a small number of users had developed a compulsive internet habit, replacing real life social interaction with online chat rooms and social networking sites.
They classed 18 respondents - 1.2% of the total - as "internet addicts". This group spent proportionately more time on sex, gambling and online community websites... The internet addicts were significantly more depressed than the non-addicted group, with a depression score five times higher.
Of course, the whole concept of "internet addiction" is a dubious one, and often tinged with tabloid-style moral panic, so there's a danger that the advocates of the "internet addiction" industry will wave this around as proof, ignoring the fact that the addictive behaviours there are more usefully described as gambling and/or pornography addiction.

The report does not put forward any causal links between heavy internet use and depression. Do specific patterns of internet use weaken social contacts, contributing to depression, or do depressed people use the internet to self-medicate?

Also, the inclusion of online community websites along with sex and gambling websites seems somewhat dubious; while the latter are masturbatory replacements for natural stimuli, especially those one leading an impoverished life may lack, can one really imply that social community sites substitute for and weaken social ties rather than facilitating them? I recall a study from a few years ago which showed that users of social web sites actually have stronger social connections, and improved wellbeing as a result of those. Though it is always possible that various characteristics of particular social websites (which may be influenced by their design and/or emergent from organic patterns of use) influence their ability to facilitate psychologically useful social ties.

There are 3 comments on ""Internet addiction" and depression":

Posted by: Greg http://spill-label.org/blog Wed Feb 3 11:04:58 2010

Does Internet-use cause depression, or does depression cause Internet-use? I'd suggest that the answer is "both", and furthermore that this is precisely what the Internet, other forms of entertainment, and drugs all have in common. If reality is boring or painful for someone, they will be motivated to [go online, watch tv, listen to music, read fiction, have a coffee, drink alcohol etc etc]. If they do that often enough, they will become [less competent, less fit, less healthy, poorer, time-poorer etc]. This will make reality even more boring or painful, causing them to want to spend more time and money doing ... you see what I mean. Maybe one day we'll stop describing dynamics like this as "chicken and egg" and start calling them "internet and depression".

Posted by: acb http://dev.null.org/acb/ Wed Feb 3 11:37:16 2010

Does internet use weaken social ties though? I imagine if one's on gambling and porn sites, it would, but if one's on instant messaging and Facebook (or, indeed, sites with a sense of community; MetaFilter and Mess+Noise come to mind), it would actually stimulate social connections. I guess the question is whether the social ties formed/stimulated online are a poor substitute for real-life connections (and broken when one of the parties gets a life in the big room outside) or a complement to them. I imagine that it was once the former but is becoming more of the latter, as kids carry Facebook and Foursquare and such on their iPhones and use them to help conduct their lives.

Posted by: Greg Thu Feb 4 04:43:40 2010

The trend in reported research is that increasingly, online socializing is a support for offline socializing rather than being a world unto itself, as you suggest at the end there. That 90s academic thing of seeing "the online" as separate - almost a separate physical dimension - is going out of fashion.

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