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Written by Daniel Z. Lieberman, MD
If you’re one of the many people who feel intimidated by New Year's resolutions focused on lowering screen time, you might have breathed a sigh of relief upon seeing some recent headlines indicating the internet may not be bad for your mental health after all.
A new study on mental health and internet use reported “little to no support for changes in well-being over time and in association with Internet-technology adoption.” But however reassuring that might sound at first, there’s several reasons that you probably shouldn’t be crossing any planned social media breaks off your to-do list just yet.
The first, and arguably most important, is the scope of the study itself: When we think about the relationship between internet use and problems with mental health, we often have social media in mind.
As we all know, and as many reports have shown, social media can distort our perceptions of self by constantly exposing us to unrealistic standards, encouraging us to compare ourselves to others and amplifying harmful speech. But this new research, which was financed by the Oxford Internet Institute, didn’t measure the correlation between social media usage and psychological health. Instead, researchers surveyed the relationship between mental well-being and access to high-speed internet.
That’s a huge difference! Just think about all the other things you use the internet for when you’re not idly scrolling through Instagram or TikTok: On an average day, you might send some emails for work, hop on a Zoom, log into your bank account to check your balance, do a bit of online shopping, read the news, maybe even catch up on your favorite show.
By mixing all these possible internet-enabled actions together with its assessments of social media, the study muddies its own conclusions. That imprecision is particularly noticeable if, like me, you remember what life was like before the internet shaped so much of it.
When I first got access to broadband internet, I was taking a course on research ethics that offered an online version which made it possible to avoid trekking over to the National Institutes of Health every evening. At the time, signing up for the internet was a thrilling experience. I was energized, excited and full of anticipation. That hardly compares to how I feel after an hour of using social media now—drained, tired, bored and even dysphoric.
The second major problem with this study is a classic research stumbling block: After assessing overall change in mental well-being around the world over two decades and then comparing that shift to the availability of broadband internet, the authors try to make an association between the two. That approach completely ignores a host of what we call confounding variables—all of the other factors affecting quality of life during the same time period, and how they differ across the globe.
It’s easy to assume that correlation equals causation when you fail to meaningfully account for the monumental social changes that have happened over the last two decades. Zeroing in on broadband internet access and mental health is a bit like comparing life expectancy in a given country to ice cream consumption rates, without considering all the other factors at play.
To their credit, the researchers do acknowledge the limitations of their research. But we live in a time when headlines circulate way faster than journal articles, which means research on these crucial topics can easily get misinterpreted by non-science publications or readers. (And hey, I don’t blame you for not necessarily wanting to spend your Sunday morning reading through a full study!)
Researchers working on such vital, hotly contested topics have a duty to publish rigorously tested studies that resist dangerously inaccurate readings. And their peer reviewers, the academic colleagues who go over the research, are responsible for holding them to the principles of valid science.
All of this matters because the stakes are high when it comes to increased internet usage, especially among young people: Social media’s attention economy tends to reward extreme views. This dangerous incentive is part of why it promotes materialism, worsens body image and intensifies the impacts of cyberbullying, all of which can lead to intense feelings of isolation.
When provocative, hateful comments routinely get the most engagement—when it becomes normal to make personal attacks on people you disagree with—it’s easy to lose your perspective, restraint and sense of self. That culture takes us further away from social media’s positive uses, such as promoting closeness among families and friends or helping marginalized people connect with their communities.
Protecting ourselves from these adverse effects on our mental health takes serious effort. Beyond limiting the amount of time we spend on social media, we have to continually ask ourselves, Is this activity I'm engaging in making me happy or is it making me anxious and depressed? Is this about love and support or hate and humiliation? And any internet study that doesn’t seriously reckon with the different ways these behaviors affect our well-being isn’t one worth paying attention to.
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