Internet use does not appear to harm mental health, study finds

Tim Bradshaw at the Financial Times: “A study of more than 2mn 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 co-operation 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 2.4mn 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…(More)”.