Wednesday, 3 February 2010

The End of Civilization As We Know It: 2

In August last year I wrote about how the Internet, Facebook and Twitter are eating our brains and destroying the very fabric of society - according to Archbishop Vincent Nichols and Baroness Susan Greenfield.

Now there's a story all over the media about links between internet use and depression. According to the headlines
'Internet use linked to depression' , Study links excessive internet use to depression and Link between surfing web and depression, study claims to cite just a few. And the Mirror's Does being inter the net bring you down loads? (Classy).

According to the Independent, there is 'striking' evidence and according to the Telegraph, 'British scientists found that the longer people spent online, the less likely they were to be happy'. (The Telegraph would make a point of saying they were British).

The study, reported in Psychopathology, was carried out at Leeds University and sampled 1319 people. Of these, 1.2% were internet addicts. I make that 15.8 people but the report says that 18 of them were classed as addicts who spent 'proportionately' more time on sex, gambling and online community websites. They had a depression score five times higher than the non-addicted group according to questionnaires they filled in.

The reporting in the media is very muddled; one minute articles are foretelling doom and the next admitting that the Leeds team said 'what we don't know is which comes first - are depressed people drawn to the internet or does the internet cause depression?' The study concludes that more research is needed to look at the relationship between addiction and depression. So it's not saying very much at all - but that never got in the way of a good headline.


Dr Vaughan Bell of the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London has dealt with stories about the alleged dangers of the internet before and produced an excellent PPP about them called Don't Touch That Dial. He commented on this story that by definition internet addicts are emotionally depressed so the conclusions are 'not a big surprise' and that 'there is no good evidence that the problem is the internet itself'.

Or did he?

On his site, Mindhacks, Bell says that the diagnostic questionnaires used to test for depression are 'not particularly reliable'. He then discusses a meta-analysis of research into internet use and mood: 'This meta-analysis found that there was a statistically reliable link between internet use and depression, but one so small as to be insignificant. In fact, it found that internet was responsible for between 0.02% and 0.03% of total changes in mood'.

He also says that 'Interestingly, I am quoted in some of the news stories about the study. Actually, I was contacted by a BBC journalist and some other stories have seemingly just nicked the quotes.'

The Telegraph goes a step further and dredges up the story about teen suicides in Bridgend in 2008 where social networking sites were blamed. As I wrote in August: 'A quick survey of sites on teenage suicide make no mention of social networking as a cause - in fact, poor social networking is a factor.'

The Mirror tags this onto the end of the story for no apparent reason: 'Brainy children are more likely to suffer manic depression, a joint study in London and Sweden found'.

Both these extras serve to reinforce the idea that there is Something Bad going on, despite the flimsiness of the story.

It's not surprising the media thought there was a story here. If, like the lead author Dr Catriona Morrison, you use terms like 'the darker side' of the Internet, then don't be surprised if headlines are misleading and articles muddled.

Morrison added that 'This study reinforces the public speculation that over-engaging in websites that serve to replace normal social function might be linked to psychological disorders like depression and addiction'.

Science and speculation are generally not good friends. Reinforcing public speculation can be downright irresponsible. Saying something like 'might be linked to' is pretty much sure to be translated into misleading headlines.

So this is a non-story on two counts. Firstly, the research does not show any causal link between internet use and depression despite the best efforts of the media. Secondly, the research was not very good anyway.

1 comment:

  1. There must be a good degree of reverse causation. What seems obvious to me (without being a professor in psychology and spending money on this stuff) is that the internet will enhance whatever you go looking for. So, I use it for work, drinking, football and knowledge, probably in that order, and it makes me happy. Depressives will find no shortage of material there to deepen their depression, and of course since the resource is so vast they'll spend far too long there instead of relating to other people.