Study finds no “smoking gun” for mental health issues due to Internet usage

Enlarge / The report contrasts with a growing body of research in recent years that has connected the beginning of the smartphone era with growing rates of anxiety and depression, especially among teenage girls.

A study of more than 2 million people’s Internet use found no “smoking gun” for widespread harm to mental health from online activities such as browsing social media and gaming, despite widely claimed concerns that mobile apps can cause depression and anxiety.

Researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute, who said their study was the largest of its kind, said they found no evidence to support “popular ideas that certain groups are more at risk” from the technology.

However, Andrew Przybylski, professor at the institute—part of the University of Oxford—said that the data necessary to establish a causal connection was “absent” without more cooperation from tech companies. If apps do harm mental health, only the companies that build them have the user data that could prove it, he said.

“The best data we have available suggests that there is not a global link between these factors,” said Przybylski, who carried out the study with Matti Vuorre, a professor at Tilburg University. Because the “stakes are so high” if online activity really did lead to mental health problems, any regulation aimed at addressing it should be based on much more “conclusive” evidence, he added.

“Global Well-Being and Mental Health in the Internet Age” was published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science on Tuesday.

In their paper, Przybylski and Vuorre studied data on psychological wellbeing from 2.4 million people aged 15 to 89 in 168 countries between 2005 and 2022, which they contrasted with industry data about growth in Internet subscriptions over that time, as well as tracking associations between mental health and Internet adoption in 202 countries from 2000-19.

“Our results do not provide evidence supporting the view that the Internet and technologies enabled by it, such as smartphones with Internet access, are actively promoting or harming either wellbeing or mental health globally,” they concluded. While there was “some evidence” of greater associations between mental health problems and technology among younger people, these “appeared small in magnitude,” they added.

The report contrasts with a growing body of research in recent years that has connected the beginning of the smartphone era, around 2010, with growing rates of anxiety and depression, especially among teenage girls. Studies have suggested that reducing time on social media can benefit mental health, while those who spend the longest online are at greater risk of harm.

Big Tech companies have come under increasing pressure from lawmakers and regulators to tackle the apparent effects of their products. Two years ago, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed internal research by Instagram on teenage girls’ use of the photo app that she said showed negative correlations in areas such as body image and self esteem, though its parent company, now called Meta, said the documents had been mischaracterized.

However, Przybylski said that while much of the existing research into the relationship between technology and mental health or wellbeing “attracts attention and clicks…  the standards of evidence are quite poor.” The vast majority of studies published in this area focused on English-speaking countries, he said, while more than 90 percent of young people live outside North America and Europe.

Przybylski has for several years positioned himself as a buttress against outbreaks of moral panic over the social harms of technology, by challenging the data on which alarmist claims have been based.

He compared regulatory proposals such as banning phone use for under-16s or limiting access to certain social media apps to “security checks at airports… it’s wellbeing theater.”

“If you really want an answer to this question, you have to hit pause on implementing your random idea you think is going to save young people,” he said. “You should have the type of data that would be required for a diagnosis before you start proposing solutions or treatments.”

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