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No association between mental health harm and internet use, says study



This extensive study of some two million people by researchers at Oxford University has failed to find any link.

Links between internet adoption and psychological well-being are small at most, despite popular assumptions about the negative psychological effects of internet technologies and platforms,” according to a probe by Oxford University released on Tuesday.

This conclusion is the result of an investigation designed to examine the extent to which three indicators of psychological well-being, including life satisfaction, have changed over time in association with the use of the internet and mobile broadband. They carried out self-assessment questionnaires and analysed data from 2,434,203 people aged 15 to 89 in 168 countries between 2005 and 2022.

Among the study’s key findings is the fact that both positive and negative experiences by participants increased over this period, but the researchers found no significant evidence to suggest that internet use was in any way the cause.

They go even further, explaining that the few associations observed between internet use and mental health were smaller and less consistent than “would be expected, if the internet were causing widespread psychological harm”.

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‘Small and inconsistent associations’

“We looked very hard for a ‘smoking gun’ linking technology and well-being and we didn’t find it,’ announced Professor Andrew Przybylski, affiliated with Oxford Internet Institute.

Dr Matti Vuorre, a study co-author, added: “We studied the most extensive data on well-being and internet adoption ever considered, both over time and population demographics. Although we couldn’t address causal effects of internet use, our descriptive results indicated small and inconsistent associations.”

Faced with these unexpected results, the researchers went further to determine whether there were any specific patterns, or different conclusions, depending on the age and gender of the participants – in vain. The authors report that there were no specific demographic trends among internet users, including women and girls. They even point out that, on average, life satisfaction increased more among women over the study period.

“We put our findings under a more extreme test to see if there are matters which we have missed and we did find increased mobile broadband adoption predicted greater life satisfaction, but this association was too small to be of practical significance,” explain the study authors.

Lack of data

“It should be noted, however, that this study has certain limitations. The researchers themselves point to a lack of data provided by technology companies to obtain conclusive evidence of the impact of internet use.”

And add: “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 aim now is to be able to obtain and use this data to study in greater detail whether internet use really does have any adverse effect on users’ mental health.