London: While the internet has largely been blamed for spiking mental health levels, a large study of two million individuals’ psychological well-being found no ‘smoking gun’ between the two.
The study, published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, by the Oxford Internet Institute showed that links between internet adoption and psychological well-being are small at most, despite popular assumptions about the negative psychological effects of internet technologies and platforms.
The findings, based on data from two million individuals aged 15 to 89 in 168 countries, showed smaller and less consistent associations than would be expected, if the internet were causing widespread psychological harm, according to the research team.
“We looked very hard for a ‘smoking gun’ linking technology and well-being and we didn’t find it,” said Professor Andrew Przybylski, from Oxford.
“We studied the most extensive data on well-being and internet adoption ever considered, both over time and population demographics. Although we couldn’t address causal effects of internet use, our descriptive results indicated small and inconsistent associations,” added Matti Vuorre, Research Associate at Oxford.
Further, filtering the results by age group and gender did not reveal any specific demographic patterns among internet users, this includes women and young girls. In fact, for the average country, life satisfaction had increased more for females over the period.
“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 said.
Digging deeper, they used data on rates of anxiety, depression and self-harm from 2000-2019 in some 200 countries and analysed their associations with internet adoption.
While the team found increased mobile broadband adoption predicted greater life satisfaction, the “association was too small to be of practical significance”.
But, technology companies need to provide more data, if there is to be conclusive evidence of the impacts of internet use, they said.
“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,” the researchers said.