Internet addiction and depression

Is there a link between internet addiction and depression? I have often observed that Internet addicts seem less sociable than others – more focused on electronic interaction than physical interaction. I wonder if electronic interaction is somehow less satisfying emotionally and if that could contribute to depression.

The need for personal connection is one of our deepest needs. But connecting online lacks many of the elements that make physical interaction so satisfying. You can’t see people smile, shake their hands, or hug them. And you can’t smell the cookies they baked for you. Electronic interaction lacks many of the positive aspects of physical interaction. It is better than nothing, but a poor surrogate for the real thing. The electronic interaction, while good in itself, underscores physical disconnectedness.

Recently, I came across articles on two trend studies that brought this issue into focus.

  • The CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics reported a 400% increase in the use of anti-depressant drugs in the period between 1988-94 and 2005-08.
  • The Pew Foundation reported exponential growth in Internet social networking during the latter period. See chart below.

Social networking site use by age group

So I looked for research to see if these two things were, in fact, related.

In 2010, the journal Psychopathology published a study called, “The Relationship between Excessive Internet Use and Depression: A Questionnaire-Based Study of 1,319 Young People and Adults” by C. M. Morrison and H. Gore from the University of Leeds in the UK.

The authors studied the link between Internet addiction (AI) and depression among 1,319 respondents. They found a close relationship between AI tendencies and depression, such that IA respondents were more depressed. Among their conclusions:

Those who regard themselves as dependent on the Internet report high levels of depressive symptoms. Those who show symptoms of IA are likely to engage proportionately more than the normal population in sites that serve as a replacement for real-life socialising.

“The internet now plays a huge part in modern life, but its benefits are accompanied by a darker side,” said lead author of the report Dr. Catriona Morrison. “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.”

“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.”

In 2007, Psychopathology published another study called “Depression and Internet Addiction in Adolescents” by J.H. Ha, S.Y. Kim, S.C. Bae, H. Kim, M. Sim, and I.K. Lyoo, and S.C. Cho.

This group studied 452 Korean adolescents. First, they evaluated subjects for their severity of Internet addiction. Second, they investigated correlations between Internet addiction and depression, alcohol dependence and obsessive-compulsive symptoms. They also found that Internet addiction was significantly associated with depressive symptoms and obsessive-compulsive symptoms. Their data suggests the need to evaluate underlying depression in the treatment of Internet-addicted adolescents.

This year, Psyopathology also published another study on the subject. It was a survey of previously published academic research called, “The Association between Pathological Internet Use and Comorbid Psychopathology: A Systematic Review.” The authors of this study were: V. Carli, T. Durkee, D. Wasserman, G. Hadlaczky, R. Despalins, E. Kramarz, C. Wasserman, M. Sarchiapone, C.W. Hoven, R Brunner and M. Kaess.

They evaluated all of the studies about pathological Internet use (PIU) on MEDLINE, PsycARTICLES, PsychINFO, Global Health, and Web of Science. They found relationships to depression, anxiety, symptoms of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive symptoms, and hostility/aggression.

The majority of research was conducted in Asia. Of the twenty articles they reviewed, 75% reported significant correlations of PIU with depression, 57% with anxiety, 100% with symptoms of ADHD, 60% with obsessive-compulsive symptoms, and 66% with hostility/aggression. The strongest correlations were observed between PIU and depression; the weakest was hostility/aggression.

 My Take

Could it be that lonely, depressed people self-medicate by socializing on the Internet to make themselves feel less lonely? In the end, do they only makes themselves more depressed by isolating themselves from family, friends and support networks?

The advertising industry trade journal Ad Age reports that:

Time spent with computers has tripled over the past decade among kids age 8 to 18. The bulk of this group’s time is spent on social media, followed by games, video sites and instant messaging. The average kid packs a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes worth of media content into a daily seven and a half hours of media exposure.

Facebook may be a great way to stay in touch with friends, but it’s not quite the same thing as a hug. An email to your brother or sister isn’t quite the same thing as having dinner with him or her. An online role playing game with someone in another state isn’t quite the same thing as a pickup game of basketball down at the local playground. Or playing catch with your dad. Or baking with your mom and watching the smiles as an apple pie comes out of the oven.

An electronic social life is at best a surrogate experience for personal connection. Just like the personal handwritten letters that people used to write, electronic interaction often results in bittersweet feelings: sweet because you’re connecting, bitter because you’re still apart.

This can lead to emotional burn out for Internet addicts. They find themselves going online more and more to get the same sense of connection they once felt. But the emotional mailbox is empty. The increased time they spend online simply underscores their separation from family and friends. Kind of depressing, huh? The answer may not be in pills. It may be in logging onto life.

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One thought on “Internet addiction and depression

  1. As someone who has a lot of friends I’ve developed online, most of whom I have never met, I have to say that having these friends were a lifesaver when I was alone and lonely. While they aren’t as full and vibrant as in-person interactions, they can still be emotionally supportive and provide connections that can work into more tangible relationships. (Many of these people have made a point of getting together with other members of the group, strengthening their connections and sharing these connections with the larger group.)

    Now that I am physically close to people with whom I share an emotional closeness, I am more aware of the limitations of the online experience. But it just makes me want to meet more of my online friends in person, so I can share that kind of richness with them.

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