Excessive Internet Use Linked to Depression

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

People who spend a lot of time browsing the Internet are more likely to show depression symptoms, according to the first large-scale study of its kind in the West by University of Leeds psychologists.
Researchers found striking evidence that some users have developed a compulsive Internet habit, whereby they replace real-life social interaction with online chat rooms and social networking sites. The results suggest this type of addictive surfing can have a serious impact on mental health.

Lead author Dr. Catriona Morrison, of the University of Leeds, said, "The Internet now plays a huge part in modern life, but its benefits are accompanied by a darker side.

"While many of us use the Internet to pay bills, shop and send e-mails, there is a small subset of the population who find it hard to control how much time they spend online, to the point where it interferes with their daily activities."

These Internet addicts spent proportionately more time browsing sexually gratifying Web sites, online gaming sites and online communities. They also had a higher incidence of moderate to severe depression than nonaddicted users.

"Our research indicates that excessive Internet use is associated with depression, but what we don't know is which comes first--are depressed people drawn to the Internet, or does the Internet cause depression?

"What is clear is that for a small subset of people, excessive use of the Internet could be a warning signal for depressive tendencies."

Incidents such as the spate of suicides among teenagers in the Welsh town of Bridgend in 2008 led many to question the extent to which social networking sites can contribute to depressive thoughts in vulnerable teenagers. In the Leeds study, young people were more likely to be addicted to the Internet than middle-age users, with the average age of the addicted group standing at 21 years.

"This study reinforces the public speculation that overengaging in Web sites that serve to replace normal social function might be linked to psychological disorders  [such as] depression and addiction," added Dr. Morrison. "We now need to consider the wider societal implications of this relationship and establish clearly the effects of excessive Internet use on mental health."

This was the first large-scale study of Western young people to consider the relationship between Internet addiction and depression. The Internet use and depression levels of 1,319 people ages 16 to 51 were evaluated for the study, and of these participants, 1.2 percent were classed as being Internet addicts. While small, this figure is larger than the incidence of gambling in the UK, which stands at 0.6 percent.

The research appears in the February 10 edition of Psychopathology.

Hannah Isom

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
September 21, 2010