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No ‘smoking gun’ linking poor mental health to the internet, study finds

Researchers say correlation between internet use and poor mental health were not as universal and robust as is widely believed  (Yui Mok/PA Wire)
Researchers say correlation between internet use and poor mental health were not as universal and robust as is widely believed (Yui Mok/PA Wire)

The internet and mobile phones may not have a have a “blanket negative effect” on mental health, a new study has found.

Researchers from the University of Oxford used data from two million people aged between 15 and 89 from around the world, and found smaller associations than would be expected if the internet were causing widespread psychological harm.

However, the study did not look at social media use, and although the data included some young people, the researchers did not analyse how long people spent online.

Professor Andrew Przybylski, of the Oxford Internet Institute, and assistant professor Matti Vuorre carried out the research into home and mobile broadband use.

They say the correlation between internet use and poor mental health were not as universal and robust as is widely believed.

Prof Przybylski said: “We looked very hard for a ‘smoking gun’ linking technology and wellbeing and we didn’t find it.”

He added: “The popular idea that the internet and mobile phones have a blanket negative effect on wellbeing and mental health is not likely to be accurate.

“It is indeed possible that there are smaller and more important things going on, but any sweeping claims about the negative impact of the internet globally should be treated with a very high level of scepticism.”

The results did not reveal any specific patterns among internet users by age group and gender, including women and young girls.

Instead, the study, which looked at data from the past two decades, found that for the average country, life satisfaction increased more for females over the period.

Data from the United Kingdom was included in the study, but researchers say there was nothing distinctive about Britain in comparison to other countries.

The researchers say their findings could have been more comprehensive if technology companies provided them with more data.

They explained: “Research on the effects of internet technologies is stalled because the data most urgently needed are collected and held behind closed doors by technology companies and online platforms.

“It is crucial to study, in more detail and with more transparency from all stakeholders, data on individual adoption of and engagement with internet-based technologies.

“These data exist and are continuously analysed by global technology firms for marketing and product improvement but unfortunately are not accessible for independent research.”

For the study, published in the Clinical Psychological Science journal, the researchers looked at data on wellbeing and mental health against a country’s internet users and mobile broadband subscriptions and use, to see if internet adoption predicted psychological wellbeing.

In the second study they used data on rates of anxiety, depression and self-harm from 2000-2019 in some 200 countries.

Wellbeing was assessed using data from face-to-face and phone surveys by local interviewers, and mental health was assessed using statistical estimates of depressive disorders, anxiety disorders and self-harm in some 200 countries from 2000 to 2019.