Is the internet bad for mental health? New study has an answer.

You might be confused to see new headlines declaring that the internet isn’t bad for mental health.

After all, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a warning this spring that social media poses a profound risk for youth. Last week, a federal court ruled that a lawsuit against major social media platforms alleging that their products harm young users can move forward.

Ever since Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed in 2021 that the company concealed internal research on the negative effects of using Instagram, it’s hardly seemed controversial to suggest that certain types of internet engagement can leave people feeling worse.

Just this month, the Wall Street Journal published accusations by another whistleblower who said that executives at Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, ignored concerns that teens were being harassed or experienced unwanted sexual advances on the latter app.

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Enter a study published Tuesday by researchers in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, which tried but did not succeed in finding a compelling link between internet access and poor mental health and well-being.

Business Insider, for example, declared that the study found no link between social media use and “mental health harm.” Except that’s not what the researchers evaluated.

Instead, they contrasted internet access in the form of yearly per capita internet and mobile-broadband subscriptions and various measures of well-being and mental health.

They did not, however, distinguish internet access from certain types of platforms, like social media and gaming.

The researchers did draw on massive data sets. In one set of studies, they pulled figures for internet access and well-being indicators in 168 countries over a 16-year period. In another set of studies, they did something similar across 202 countries and 19 years. They also looked at differences in age and gender in an effort to better understand whether younger or female users might be more prone to negative experiences.

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In general, the researchers didn’t find a convincing link between internet access and poorer well-being and mental health. Among young individuals there were some minuscule positive and negative correlations between some of the variables, but co-author Dr. Andrew K. Przybylski told Mashable in an email that those findings were hard to interpret.

Przybylski, professor of human behaviour and technology at the University of Oxford, said that he believes the study is the “best evidence” we have on the question of whether internet access itself is associated with worse emotional and psychological experiences — and may provide a reality check in the ongoing debate on the matter.

“Thought leaders and some policy folks claim there is a global mental health epidemic caused by the internet, but they do not bother to collect [and] wrangle data to support this extraordinary claim,” he wrote.

Importantly, he and his co-author noted in their paper just how difficult it is to study the problem because the crucial data isn’t in the hands of researchers but instead belongs to private companies who use it to refine their marketing strategies. (Przybylski has served as an unpaid consultant to Meta and previously published research on the association of Facebook adoption and well-being in dozens of countries.)

The authors also wrote that further investigation of the relationship between online behaviors and well-being requires studying those activities where they occur, including on social media platforms.

Przybylski told Mashable that people should be able to securely, ethically, and legally donate the data they generate when they play games, use their phones, or go on social media platforms, similar to how they give permission for researchers to use their genetic, financial, educational, and health data.

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This “rich data” is currently used to sell products and ads, Przybylski said, noting that researchers have a diminished ability to study everyday life.

“I am sure that technology use has its ups and downs, but we’ll never be able to map this out, and intervene if necessary, if we don’t have objective data on how, why, and when people engage with online worlds,” Przybylski said.

Topics
Mental Health
Social Good

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