The Internet has little impact on mental health

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The assumption that internet use affects mental health is widespread. However, a study by Oxford University based on data from two million people from 168 countries has found no clear evidence. However, the researchers are also calling on technology companies to provide more data to the scientific community.

“Over the past two decades, the widespread use of the internet and mobile broadband has repeatedly raised concerns that these technologies could have a negative impact on the mental health and well-being of many people,” write psychologist and data scientist Matti Vuorre and social scientist Andrew K. Przybylski in the study, which was published on Tuesday by the Oxford Internet Institute (OOI).

In particular, there are often warnings about the effects on young people, for example, through social media and online games. However, between 2005 and 2022, “only small and inconsistent changes in global well-being and mental health” were recorded, which do not clearly indicate a link with internet use. The influence is “small at best.”

However, further studies on this broad topic are necessary, according to the authors. Basically, the behaviour of users should be researched directly on the various online platforms, but there is a lack of data for this.

Direct effects are “not detectable”
For their study, which has now been published in the journal “Clinical Psychological Science” (as soon as online), the scientists compared statistics on internet use and mobile broadband connections with data on the mental health and mental well-being of two million people in 168 countries.

For mental health, estimates of depression, anxiety disorders, and self-harm were used based on health data from the World Health Organization (WHO). Mental well-being was assessed using face-to-face and telephone interview data in the respondents’ first language.

“We examined the most comprehensive data on mental wellbeing and internet use ever studied, both in a temporal and demographic context,” Vuorre explained in a press release issued by Oxford University. However, no direct links were found in the study; the results indicate small and inconsistent correlations.

“Certain groups are not more at risk.”
“We looked very hard for clear evidence of a link between technology and happiness, but we could not find it,” Przybylski says. “We looked carefully to see if there was anything specific regarding age or gender, but there is no evidence to support the widespread notion that certain groups are more at risk.”

The researchers also filtered the results by age and gender, for example, in relation to women or young girls. However, no patterns were discovered in these groups that indicated a link between mental well-being, mental health, and the use of internet technologies and online platforms. According to the study, life satisfaction among women has actually increased over the last two decades on average across 168 countries.

Marketing yes, science no
However, Vuorre and Przybylski also emphasize that methodological shortcomings hamper research into this wide-ranging topic. According to the authors, there is a lack of data for ultimately conclusive and differentiated evidence of the effects of Internet use on people. This data is available “and is constantly analyzed by global technology companies for marketing and product improvement purposes, but is unfortunately not accessible for independent research,” the study states.

According to the researchers, more transparency is “crucial” to investigating the impact of internet-based technologies on society. They are therefore calling for greater cooperation between technology companies and the scientific community.

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