A new study found there is no evidence to support the claim that increased use of the internet is harmful to mental health. At most, the link is “small,” researchers said this week.
The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Oxford’s Internet Institute. It analyzed the mental well-being of two million people aged 15 to 89 in 168 countries, based on data from prior research done between 2005 and 2022.
No ‘smoking gun’
Researchers also looked at a second study that analyzed rates of anxiety, depression, and self-harm from 2000 to 2019 in 200 countries.. They examined the two sets of data by location and demographic in relation to local internet usage and mobile broadband statistics.
Andrew Przybylski, a professor at the Oxford Internet Institute and co-author of the paper, said the team found no evidence “that the internet and technologies enabled by it, such as smartphones with internet access, are actively promoting or harming either well-being or mental health globally.”
“We looked very hard for a ‘smoking gun’ linking technology and well-being, and we didn’t find it,’ he said in a statement on Nov. 28.
Co-author Matti Vuorre, a research associate at Oxford and assistant professor at Tilburg University, added: “Although we couldn’t address causal effects of internet use, our descriptive results indicated small and inconsistent associations [with mental health issues].’
Titled ‘Global Well-Being and Mental Health in the Internet Age’, the study’s findings challenge the common perception that internet use is a major contributor to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, particularly among younger people.
While the researchers found an increase in reported negative and positive mental health experiences, they concluded there was “little to no evidence suggesting (mobile) internet use was associated with these changes.”
Przybylski and Vuorre filtered their results by age and gender and still could not find any specific demographic patterns among internet users, including women and young girls. In fact, “for the average country, life satisfaction had increased more for females over the period,” the team said.
“We meticulously tested whether there is anything special in terms of age or gender, but there is no evidence to support popular ideas that certain groups are more at risk,” Przybylski added.
Young people using internet on mobile. Image credits: University of Oxford
Loopholes in Oxford study
The number of people using the internet has more than tripled over the past 20 years, rising from an estimated 17% of the global population to 59% by 2020, according to the International Telecommunication Union.
The rapid spread of the internet was followed by worries that its broad adoption—and technologies enabled by it, such as online games, smartphones, and social media—are actively harming its users, especially adolescents, studies show.
In response, users and an increasing number of governments throughout the world have acted to limit access to online technologies.
Psychologist Nadja Bester said while the Oxford study contributes “valuable insights to the ongoing internet good and bad debate,” it also faces “limitations inherent to the studies it reviews, such as selection bias.”
“Notably, the study overlooks key factors like society’s loneliness epidemic and internet addiction,” Bester told MetaNews.
“It excludes the rich diversity of moderating variables at play, including demographics like…culture and ethnicity, socio-economic status, occupation, and usage types (are we talking work, social media, porn, gaming, gambling, etc.).”
Bester said “society is navigating uncharted waters,” but also appeared to back the Oxford findings, saying: “The internet doesn’t ‘create’ mental health issues but instead highlights or exacerbates existing psychological challenges, whether those live in conscious awareness or lurk in the dark labyrinths of our subconscious minds.”
Big Tech withholding key data
Przybylski and Vuorre, the Oxford researchers, admitted their study was handicapped by Big Tech companies that refused to provide more data. The team reportedly reached out to “all the major social media platforms and game platforms,” but only Meta offered some information. Others prefer to keep the data they collect “behind closed doors.”
“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,” the researchers wrote. “These data exist and are continuously analyzed by global technology firms for marketing and product improvement, but unfortunately, they are not accessible for independent research.”
According to Przybylski, data from online platforms could help researchers get an idea of what people are actually doing on the internet. This is important because “most of what people think they know about the influence of the online world is based on unvalidated self-report measures,” The Register reported.
Nadja Bester, also co-founder of the engage-to-earn investing platform AdLunam, raised concerns about technology firms stalling conclusive research on the effects of the internet.
“Our online experiences largely involve subjecting our brains to the proprietary playbooks of a handful of tech giants, adding to existing concerns about data ownership and privacy,” Bester tells MetaNews.
“Tech companies possess more insight into our online lives than we do, contributing to a black box phenomenon where humans-as-datasets cannot study ourselves without transparent access to our online lives as (biddable) data points, ever-ripe for commodification.”
The Oxford research was published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science recently.