Internet Addiction and DepressionA new study came out today that suggests that people who use the Internet a lot share something in common — depression. What the study does not find is whether depression causes people to turn to the Internet for their social interactions, or whether excessive use of the Internet “makes” people more depressed:

Psychologists from Leeds University found what they said was “striking” evidence that some avid net users develop compulsive internet habits in which they replace real-life social interaction with online chat rooms and social networking sites.

“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,” the study’s lead author, Catriona Morrison, wrote in the journal Psychopathology.

“This type of addictive surfing can have a serious impact on mental health.”

Indeed. When a depressed person turns to the Internet to socialize, I’m not at all surprised that they use it for social interaction in chat rooms and on social networking websites. What else would you expect? People who are depressed don’t want to socialize, but the Internet makes it so much easier to do it. It may make a depressed individual feel more “connected” and help them make it through every day with their depression.

But what the researchers found and didn’t really comment on is just as interesting. If we know that approximately 5% of the population suffers from depression at any given time, most people who are depressed are not mis-using or over-using the Internet. Far less sexier headline, but information one can just as readily conclude from the researchers’ findings.

Limitations of the current study include the usual problems we see in studies like this. First, it was not a randomized, controlled sample — a significant problem with so many “Internet addiction” studies. Instead the researchers posted a questionnaire online and received responses from 1,319 Britons aged between 16 and 51. (It’s not clear how many people saw an announcement for the study and decided not to participate — another sampling problem.) Of those 1,319 people, 18 — yes, that’s eighteen — met the criteria for “Internet addiction” using the Internet Addiction Test. The test itself has only had a single validation study, despite calls for more research to be conducted to verify its validity (“The IAT’s reliability and validity need to be further tested using a larger sample. Once a valid and reliable measure has been devised, more can then be researched about the nature of Internet addiction.”). Despite the fact that this test is still not very robust, researchers continue to use it as though it were a valid and robust psychological measure.

Is this a “darker side” of the Internet, as the news release claims? Well, gee, I guess. But that’s making an assumption about which way the relationship goes — one that data can’t tell us anything about. So when researchers start making subjective comments like that, it raises the suspicion that the scientist isn’t exactly being objective.

It may be that the Internet has an empowering side — one that allows people suffering from clinical depression to reach out and find human social contact. That’s just as valid interpretation of data, but not one the researchers suggested, nor emphasized in their comments about the study. Is the glass half empty, or half full?

So given the study was a correlation survey and could not show any type of causal relationship, how did the mainstream media do with getting the story right? Surprisingly well.

The study appears in the Feb. 2010 issue of the journal, Psychopathology.

Read the full news article: Study links excessive internet use to depression