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No ‘smoking gun’ linking mental health harm and the internet – study

No ‘smoking gun’ linking mental health harm and the internet – study (Dominic Lipinski/PA)
No ‘smoking gun’ linking mental health harm and the internet – study (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

The internet and mobile phones may not have a “blanket negative effect” on wellbeing and mental health, researchers say.

A large international study used data from two million people aged 15 to 89 in 168 countries, and found smaller associations than would be expected if the internet were causing widespread psychological harm.

The researchers say that if the link between internet use and poor health were as universal and robust as many think they would have found it.

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, Tilburg University, and Research Associate, Oxford Internet Institute, carried out the research into home and mobile broadband use.

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.”

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

Instead, the study, which looked at data for 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 the researchers say there was nothing distinctive about the UK compared with other countries.

Although the study included a lot of information, the researchers say technology companies need to provide more data, if there is to be conclusive evidence of the impacts of internet use.

They explain: “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.