A comprehensive study involving over two million individuals has uncovered no definitive evidence to support the widely held notion that internet usage, particularly social media browsing and gaming, directly contributes to widespread mental health issues.
Researchers from the Oxford Internet Institute, who conducted the largest study of its kind, stated that their findings contradict prevalent beliefs that specific groups are more vulnerable to the negative impacts of technology.
Despite this, Andrew Przybylski, a professor at the institute affiliated with the University of Oxford, emphasized that without greater cooperation from tech companies, establishing a causal connection between internet use and mental health harm remains challenging. He explained that only the companies that develop these apps possess the user data necessary to provide conclusive evidence.
"The best data we currently have suggests there is no global link between these factors," stated Przybylski, who collaborated with Matti Vuorre, a professor at Tilburg University, on the study. Given the "extremely high stakes" if online activity does indeed contribute to mental health problems, any regulatory measures aimed at addressing this issue should be grounded in far more "convincing" evidence, he added.
The study, titled "Global Well-Being and Mental Health in the Internet Age," was published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science on Tuesday.
Przybylski and Vuorre examined psychological well-being data from 2.4 million individuals aged 15 to 89 across 168 countries between 2005 and 2022. They compared this data to industry data on internet subscription growth over the same period and tracked associations between mental health and internet adoption in 202 countries from 2000 to 2019.
"Our findings do not support the notion that the internet and the technologies it enables, such as smartphones with internet access, are actively promoting or harming either wellbeing or mental health globally," they concluded. While they observed "some evidence" of stronger associations between mental health issues and technology among younger individuals, they noted that these "appeared small in magnitude."
This report stands in stark contrast to a growing body of research over recent years that has linked the onset of the smartphone era, around 2010, to rising rates of anxiety and depression, particularly among teenage girls. Studies have suggested that reducing time spent on social media can positively impact mental health, while those who spend the most time online are at a higher risk of harm.
Big Tech companies have faced increasing pressure from lawmakers and regulators to address the apparent effects of their products. Two years ago, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen disclosed internal research by Instagram on teenage girls' use of the photo app, which she claimed revealed negative correlations in areas such as body image and self-esteem. However, Meta, Instagram's parent company, stated that the documents had been misinterpreted.
Przybylski, however, pointed out that while much of the existing research into the relationship between technology and mental health or well-being "attracts attention and clicks... the standards of evidence are quite poor." He noted that the vast majority of studies published in this area focused on English-speaking countries, while over 90 percent of young people live outside North America and Europe.
Przybylski has positioned himself for several years as a counterweight to outbursts of moral panic over the social harms of technology, challenging the data upon which alarmist claims have been based.
He likened regulatory proposals such as banning phone use for under-16s or limiting access to specific social media apps to "security checks at airports... it's wellbeing theatre."
"If you genuinely want an answer to this question, you have to hit pause on implementing your random idea you think is going to save young people," he said. "You should have the type of data that would be required for a diagnosis before you start proposing solutions or treatments."
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