No 'smoking gun' evidence that Internet harms our well-being, study claims

The study found no ‘smoking gun’ evidence that internet harms our well-being
The study found no ‘smoking gun’ evidence that internet harms our well-being Copyright Canva
By Luke Hurst
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A major study involving two million people has found no clear evidence that the widespread adoption of the Internet has harmed people’s well-being.

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There is a popular belief that the spread of the use of the Internet and social media has had a negative effect on our collective mental health - but a major new study casts doubt on that idea.

Researchers used data on the psychological well-being of two million people from 2005 to 2022 across 168 countries, in relation to the country-level use of the Internet and mobile broadband.

They found that negative and positive experiences both increased on average, but there was little evidence that mobile Internet use was associated with these changes.

The authors of the report say that across the people studied, who were aged 15 to 89, there were smaller and less consistent associations with negative well-being than would be expected if the Internet was causing widespread psychological harm.

“We looked very hard for a ‘smoking gun’ linking technology and well-being and we didn’t find it,” said Andrew Przybylski, a professor of human behaviour and technology at the University of Oxford’s Internet Institute (OII), and one of the two authors of the report.

Published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, the study involved the “most extensive data on well-being and Internet adoption ever considered, both over time and population demographics”, explained the other author, Matti Vuorre, an assistant professor at Tilburg University and research associate at the Oxford Internet Institute.

“Although we couldn’t address causal effects of Internet use, our descriptive results indicated small and inconsistent associations,” he added.

They also found no specific demographic patterns among Internet users, although they said for the average country, life satisfaction had in fact increased more for females over the time period studied.

“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,” said Przybylski.

They also found the increase in mobile broadband adoption predicted better life satisfaction, but said the association was “too small to be of practical significance”.

An earlier report from the same authors, published by the Royal Society in August, argued there was no evidence linking the worldwide use of Facebook with negative well-being. 

Using data from nearly a million people across 72 countries from 2008 to 2019, they found “no evidence” that the widespread use of Facebook was consistently linked with a negative effect on well-being.

Following the release of the latest study, which claims there’s no “smoking gun” sign of mental health harm from the Internet, they do insist that technology companies need to provide more data to investigate the issue further.

“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 authors said in the study.

“It is crucial to study, in more detail and with more transparency from all stakeholders, data on individual adoption of and engagement with Internet-based technologies. These data exist and are continuously analysed by global technology firms for marketing and product improvement but unfortunately are not accessible for independent research.”

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