How Depressed People Use The Internet

The internet is different things to different people: a social hub, gigantic reference library or, for some, a place to seek solace. In fact, research shows that the way depressed individuals use the internet is dramatically different to the norm -- and the findings could help diagnose depression earlier.

Writing in the New York Times, a team of researchers report the findings of a study centered around internet use and depression. Studying college students, they assessed depression levels in the individuals using questionnaires and also analysed their internet usage by monitoring web traffic. The results are interesting:

"There were two major findings. First, we identified several features of internet usage that correlated with depression. In other words, we found a trend: in general, the more a participant's score on the survey indicated depression, the more his or her internet usage included these (rather technical-sounding) features -- for instance, "p2p packets," which indicate high levels of sharing files (like movies and music).

"Our second major discovery was that there were patterns of internet usage that were statistically high among participants with depressive symptoms compared with those without symptoms. That is, we found indicators: styles of internet behaviour that were signs of depressive people. For example, participants with depressive symptoms tended to engage in very high e-mail usage. This perhaps was to be expected: research by the psychologists Janet Morahan-Martin and Phyllis Schumacher has shown that frequent checking of e-mail may relate to high levels of anxiety, which itself correlates with depressive symptoms."

The team also found that depressive individuals switch between applications -- like e-mail, chat rooms and games -- more frequently. That agrees with evidence from the National Institute of Mental Health, which suggests that experiencing difficulty concentrating is also a sign of depressive symptoms.

But what use is all this research? Well, the suggestion is that the findings could be used to help spot depressive behaviour in internet users at an early stage through monitoring of internet use. That of course raises some weighty privacy concerns, prompting us to ask: which is more important, data privacy or mental health? [New York Times]

Image by Shutterstock/istvanffy

WATCH MORE: Science & Health News


    I think such diagnostic tools could cause unnecessary pigeonholes.

    I fit the profile mentioned for depressive tendencies though I'm merely a sharer and a troll.

      Agreed. This smells like pseudo BS to me. I'm suffer from depression here and there, and I avoid email like the plague at home.

      Sounds to me like they might be getting confused between lonely and depressed.

    Im sorry, but this is just complete and utter bull-sh**

      Im sorry, but the reason of your judgement is?

        Based off the criteria in this so called 'study', everybody would be bloody diagnosed! You multitask? Oh, it seems you have depression! You download movies? Oh, it seems you have depression! Why on earth is funding going to crap like this when so many other worthy scientific studies continue to struggle?

          +1 i have to agree with Bill

          don't worry to much, it was a study of 216 students, not really a big deal imo. Seems pretty silly.

          It's a correlation, not a causal link

    I use IRC and Reddit when I'm depressed. Ladies and gentlemen, I have found the cure.

    This comment has been deemed inappropriate and has been deleted.

    I'd have expected quite the opposite. Lots of procrastinating, less multitasking, lots of refreshing the same task anxiously looking for updates.

    The sad thing is that if any concrete link is found, Facebook or Google or any other such "always logged in" portal that can somewhat track your activities will ultimately find a way to offer Depressive Customer Packs to advertisers.

    It's a well known fact that depressed people use white polycarbonate Macbooks with the logo airbrushed out.

    Everyone is diagnosed as depressed these days, especially teenagers who are just angsty.
    Its an excuse to push pharmaceutical drugs onto people who may not/do not need them.

    And I agree with OsirisFox, there seems to be a confusion between loneliness and depression.

    I don't think the study itself is BS, but I am highly sceptical that internet usage patters (as described in the study) could ever be used to predict or diagnose depression. On the other hand, someone looking up suicide methods, life insurance, wills, how to obtain nembutal etc is very different

Join the discussion!