How Depressed People Use the Internet

By Jamie Condliffe on at

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 behavior 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 email, 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]

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