About Bob Rehak

I started this blog to share thoughts on how changes in the media environment affect almost everything in life. I have spent more than forty years in communications, most of them in advertising and marketing. My academic background includes a stint as a professor of advertising at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

Social Networking in the Workplace

FIRED-FOR-FACEBOOK

Used with the permission of online-paralegal-programs.com

A lady named Aria Cahill called this infographic to my attention. “You posted what?!” I find the graphics to be a pretty compelling way to tell a story. Her client is online-paralegal-programs.com. This graphic educates people about the dangers of social networking at work, specifically posting information about one’s employer or manager that may be derogatory. As an employer myself, I can tell you that I work around the clock to provide opportunities to employees and provide the most positive work environment I can. Inevitably, though, people sometimes become disenchanted for one reason or another. When they take their gripes online instead of discussing them with me, it feels as though I’m being stabbed in the back. It “colors” my relationship with the employee. It especially hurts when they do it on company time, using company computers.

This poster discusses how many people use social networks at work; the percent of people who say they’re dissatisfied with their jobs; how people are unloading their gripes online; and how the gripes affect their relationships with employers.

The last section, “Not fired – Note even hired!” talks about how employers check online postings before hiring people now. Personally, when I see someone who has a history of criticizing others online, it causes me to wonder whether they will criticize our clients publicly and cost us business. If I’m forced to make a close call between two candidates for a position, that could make me decide against one and for another.

Infographics like this are very thought-provoking. They underscore some of the unintended consequences of Internet usage … namely, how people can shoot themselves in the foot. My thanks to the people at online-paralegal-programs.com for allowing me to reproduce it.

 

Uptown: Portrait of a Chicago Neighborhood in the Mid-1970s by Robert Rehak

Uptown_CoverIt’s been a month since I’ve posted on this site. I’ve been busy completing a new book referenced in the previous post.  The book is Uptown: Portrait of a Chicago Neighborhood in the Mid-1970s by Robert Rehak.  You can now pre-order it on Amazon.com or BarnesAndNoble.com.

The coffee-table-sized book (9.5″ x 13″) will be in bookstores before Thanksgiving. Published by Chicago’s Books Press, an imprint of Chicago’s Neighborhoods, Inc., the book contains 272 pages, 250+ illustrations, plus an introduction and captions that put the images and the place in historical context. For photographers, the book also contains notes about the equipment and techniques used when taking the photos.

Uptown: Portrait of a Chicago Neighborhood in the Mid-1970s by Robert Rehak is a time capsule from 40 years ago. It shows you what life was like in one of Chicago’s most diverse and densely populated neighborhoods. Although the book specifically focuses on one neighborhood in Chicago, almost every large city in America has a neighborhood coping with similar challenges.

When I posted several of the images on my photoblog, bobrehak.com, they immediately went viral. I’d like to thank all the readers who took their valuable time to write me with notes of appreciation and to help flesh out details that make the book a much richer experience. They provided the inspiration for this book.

Viewed as a book, instead of a website, these photos become even more powerful. The images are much larger and higher resolution, revealing details not visible on the Web. The images are also arranged in a more logical sequence – when putting together the website, I was responding to reader requests. Finally, when you see all of the images back to back, as opposed to opening them one by one, it’s easier to see the forces that were shaping this fascinating neighborhood and the way ordinary people adapted to them. Below are two sample spreads from the book.

uptown-spreads-for-websitePhotographing in Uptown for four years made me much less judgmental and much more understanding of the troubles other people face. I experienced firsthand the plight of parents forced to chose between shoes and food for their children. I wish every senator and congressman had the opportunity to walk the streets of Uptown in the 1970s. It might have changed some of our national priorities.

Once again, thank you all for all your help. I hope you enjoy the book and am eager to hear your feedback.

 

Collaborative History

Uptown16From 1973 to 1977, I photographed the people of a neighborhood in Chicago called Uptown. The project was a self-assignment but many of the photos I took there were later published by the Chicago Tribune. Then the images laid in a drawer for almost 40 years.

I recently rediscovered them and posted them on my photo blog, BobRehak.com, not to be confused with this blog at Robert Rehak.com. The response has been overwhelming. BobRehak.com has received 1.5 million hits in the last month. I say that, not to brag, but to introduce the subject of this post, collaborative history.

Many of the people in the images have written to tell me more about their circumstances and growing up in one of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods. I’ve heard from policemen, firemen, teachers, social workers, residents, widows, gang members, writers, historians, shopkeepers and more.

Dozens of people have sent me valuable information that is helping to deepen my understanding of the neighborhood as well as the social and economic forces in play at the time. To put this into perspective, the year I started photographing there, the big news stories were “OPEC Oil Embargo” and “Watergate Tapes.” The embargo quadrupled gasoline prices in a year, threw the country into recession, and caused inflation to skyrocket. The tapes brought down the Nixon presidency within two years.

Lesser stories, including the struggle of working class families to make ends meet among these circumstances, got lost in the fog of time. Now, with the help of the Internet and readers, I am piecing their stories back together again. I hope to have a book ready by the end of the year.

When published, it will be more than a portfolio of my early documentary photographs. It will be a collaborative history of one of Chicago’s most fascinating neighborhoods, made possible through the spread of social media on the Internet. As readers see themselves in photos, they spread the word to their friends who are in other photos. Then they write me with the stories behind the photos.

While the stories I’m discovering do not all have happy endings, they do have important lessons. I learned last week of the fate of a gorgeous young woman. I wrote about her, “If she hadn’t been in Uptown, she could have been in Vogue.” She died young of HIV.

I also photographed a family with three kids. Two of them were in gangs. They always had cigarettes danging from their lips because it made them look tough. According to the widow of one, both moved to Alabama to escape the gang culture in Uptown, but then died from esophageal cancer in their mid-forties.

Yesterday, I was contacted by a Chicago firefighter after I posted a picture of his station house. He informed me that his engine company was the busiest in America during the decade of the 1970s and early 1980s. This helped put the slumlord protests that I photographed into perspective.

I’m finding many life lessons in the emails I get. I doubt the inventors of the Internet had collaborative history in mind when they designed the medium. But the social networks that the Internet spawned have created a tool to do just that.

The Internet and History

Bottle Refund BoyWith more than two trillion pages of information, the Internet has rapidly become the world’s biggest information archive. From a historian’s perspective, however, it presents several problems.

First, web sites come and go. Pages come and go. An active link today may yield a “file not found” error tomorrow.

Second, file formats change over time. I remember reading a story in the Smithsonian about twenty years ago. The magazine claimed at the time (just ten or fifteen years into the computer revolution), that librarians were worried about the ability to access information stored in file formats that were no longer popular. Prior to the last century, there were just two file formats in the whole of human history: rock and paper. Since the dawn of computers, there have been hundreds of thousands.

Imagine all the information lost for all time because the computing platform, operating system, and application it was created on are no longer commercially viable. The rate of innovation, while a boon to mankind on one hand, is a curse to historians on the other. But the news isn’t all bad.

Having said that, I had a personal experience recently that shows the positive side of the Internet when it comes to history. I published a series of documentary photographs that I took almost 40 years ago in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood on bobrehak.com, my photo blog. A blogger in Chicago who specializes in the history of Uptown, Joane Asala, found them and posted a link to them. They quickly went viral.

As a result, tens of thousands of people have gotten a glimpse into the past of a neighborhood that is quite different today. I had pretty good notes about where I took most of the pictures, but they were incomplete in places. So I invited readers to email me if they recognized people or places in any of the images. Numerous people emailed me about themselves or friends, and places in the images.

Yesterday, I received an email from a man who thought he recognized the architecture in a corner bar at Buena and Broadway. So I went to the street view in google maps. Bingo. The same building was still there. Everything around it had changed. Signs and trash that once littered the street were gone. They were replaced by trees. The contrast was striking. You can see it for yourself by going to the image and clicking on the link embedded in the caption.

Tools like Google Maps were intended primarily to help people navigate. But they have an unintended and quite positive consequence. They can be used to give people a wealth of information about then and now. They can be a boon to historians trying to explain the how and the why of change.

The Importance of Properly Assessing Risk in the Purchase Decision Cycle when Developing and Placing Advertising

shutterstock_86919787The rise and fall of mediums affect the ways people assess risk when purchasing products and services.

I have long believed that the worst advertising any company can have is unhappy customers. It’s very important that companies get their products and services into the hands of people who will have a good experience with them. That requires understanding the types of risk that potential customers face.

 

Four Types of Risk

People always judge products and services, in part, by the amount of risk that the purchase involves. Risk falls into four categories:

  • Price risk = “Will this ruin me financially if the product/service doesn’t work?”
  • Performance risk = “Will this product/service do what I need it to do?”
  • Social risk = “What will other people think of me because of this decision?”
  • Self-image risk = “What will I think of myself because of this decision?”

Every purchase decision has a distinctive risk profile. The nature of this profile affects the form, content and placement of communication. The higher the risk, the more important things like trust, credibility, reassurance, warranties, recommendations, reputation, past experience, and relationships become.

Large industrial or business-to-business purchases, such as a new plant or production line, have huge price and performance risks. Therefore, committees often make decisions. Because of this, social and self-image risks escalate as well. Bad recommendations can ruin careers.

Consumer automobile purchases also rank high on each type of risk.

The choice of a medical provider and hospital for coronary artery bypass surgery can have extremely high price and performance risk, but social and self-image risk may be negligible.

A person’s choice of clothes may have high social and self-image risk, but little price or performance risk.

Impulse purchases, such as candy or ice cream, have very little risk of any type. This is why people buy them almost without thinking.

Meeting Customer Expectations

When developing content for an advertisement, copywriters and art directors must properly address the type(s) of risk that the reader will most likely feel. Failure to properly articulate the degrees and types of risk that the reader is feeling will result in objections that torpedo the sale. Worse, it could result in unhappy customers that kill the brand.

Risk assessment affects message placement as well as creative development. Certain mediums are better vehicles for addressing certain types of risks.  For instance, addressing performance risk may be easier in television than print because video lends itself to product demonstrations. Likewise, addressing social risk may be easier on the Internet than other mediums because of social networks.

The feedback that the Internet gives companies helps them design products that better meet the needs of users. It also helps them better understand customers and match products with market segments based on risk profiles.

Risk of Not Considering Risk

For advertisers, the risk of not considering risk in message creation and placement is irrelevance, lost sales, and brand vitality.

Impact of Responsive Design on Website Usability, Aesthetics, Support and Costs

responsivesquareEarly in the life of this blog, I posted on responsive design. For those not familiar with the term, responsive design is a type of website design that dynamically reconfigures the site for each user’s access device. Responsive sites look one way on a smartphone, another on a tablet, and yet another on laptops or desktops.

When a user accesses a responsive site, the site interrogates the user’s access device to see what the size and aspect ratio of the screen is. Then, the site serves up information from a database according to guidelines established by programmers. In practical terms, this means that for smartphones, the site is most likely dished up as one column with larger type and navigation nested under an icon.

Benefits of Responsive Design

The benefits to the user are immediately apparent. The site is “usable” on even the smallest platform. This is important because Google estimates that by 2015, half of all web searches will be from mobile devices.

The benefits to the company sponsoring the site are also clearly apparent: more users, a more satisfying user experience and lower support costs. To optimize the experience for each user, they now need only support and update one site instead of four different ones.

However, for the designers creating the site, the benefits are not so apparent. For a responsive site to work, you need  to design for the lowest common denominator (i.e., the smallest screen) and work upwards from there.

You need to keep all elements within their own areas on a rigid grid for each size so that the layouts can be reconfigured as the elements rearrange themselves. That means, the elements can’t overlap because they may no longer even be adjacent to each other as you move from one size to another.

Tradeoffs

As a result, responsive sites score far higher on functionality and usability than they do on cutting-edge design. Another consideration for responsive design is cost. Responsive sites  generally cost more than traditional sites because of their complexity.

Steep Learning Curve

My company has developed several responsive sites so far this year. The first was by far the biggest and most complex – 560 pages in seven languages. If you haven’t yet created a responsive site, I highly recommend starting with something less ambitious. The complexity of designing all those pages for all those devices in all those languages was daunting to say the least. One of the biggest problems: it just takes more words to say things in some languages than others. Some languages used 50 percent more words than English. After much tweaking, the client’s site now looks great and works great. The client loves it.

As we got in the responsive groove, each of the next three sites we designed took less time. The first contained about 100 pages and took about three weeks. The second and third each contained about 200 pages. The last of those took less than a week.

Some Modest Recommendations to Save Your Shirt

If you work in a small design shop or ad agency, here are some recommendations that can make your first foray into responsive design easier:

  1. Start small with a simple site to help get up the learning curve. Calculus isn’t for kindergarten.
  2. Don’t try to break the grid with your design. Stay within the box. Make the excitement come from the elegance, simplicity and sophistication of the overall architecture. Those techniques they taught you in art school to build visual excitement, such as establishing a pattern and then breaking it, won’t work in a responsive design. You may find a workaround, but it will be very, very costly and will probably break your site at some point.
  3. Learn the differences between content management systems before you start. Drupal, for instance, gives you far more flexibility than WordPress but WordPress is much easier to work with. Unless a) you’re an expert PHP programmer, b) you’re willing to hire one or c) you have some other compelling reason to go with Drupal, such as foreign language support, stick with WordPress. WordPress offers a wide variety of themes (templates), some of which are easily customizable (within limits), and the system is much easier to grok.
  4. The first time out, don’t try to create a responsive site yourself, especially if you’re new to content management systems and especially if the content management system you’re using is Drupal. Find a good programming firm to help you. You’re going to need a spiritual guide through the wilderness of technology.

Finally, don’t be afraid to try something new like responsive design. That’s how you grow. Every year, I try to do at least one thing that makes me really stretch. This year, it was responsive design. It makes being creative much harder because of the complexity. But in the end, it’s worth it. Nothing worthwhile is ever easy to achieve.

Viral Communications and the Internet

So, we’ve all heard about viral communications … as with those videos that someone posts on YouTube. Someone sees it, tells their friends, who tell THEIR friends, who tell THEIR friends and so on. It’s kind of like in the days before the Internet when “rumors would spread like wildfire.”

Robert Rehak’s Own Mini-Viral Communication Experience

Two days ago, a lady named Joanne Asala in Chicago who edits CompassRose.org said that she had come across some photographs that I had posted on BobRehak.com. I took them in Chicago’s Uptown Neighborhood back in the mid-1970s and the focus of her blog is the history of that neighborhood.

She asked permission to post two of the photos and refer people to my site to see the rest. I agreed. She posted them late Wednesday night. When I woke up on Thursday morning, traffic on BobRehak.com had spiked. My photo site had received 800 visits by 4 am. Within 24 hours, that number had swelled to more than 8000 and the trend has continued today – with each visitor viewing an average of 13 photos.

Uptown28

The point of talking about this mini-viral episode is not to brag, but to point out how valuable a single link can be. Ms. Asala’s post led to several others on Facebook and as news of my “historical time capsule” (as she called it) spread throughout Chicago, my site received thousands of new visitors and tens of thousands of page views.

Ground Zero for Poverty

At one time, in the 1920s, Uptown had been a summer resort and playground for Chicago’s rich and famous. By the 1970s, the neighborhood had spiraled downward. It was ground zero for poverty. Today, it seems Uptown is lurching toward gentrification again. The photos provide an interesting historical contrast.

Many of the visitors emailed me to say how the portfolio brought back memories of growing up in the area. Some felt misty-eyed. Others wanted to purchase prints. Others wanted to know whether I had pictures of their friends in my archives. Still others emailed me about the locations in the photos and told me what they looked like today. (I now live in Houston, not Chicago.)

Positive Side Effects of Viral Communication

Thanks to Ms. Asala, I was able to meet and network with many people online that I never would have been able to meet in real life. Often I talk about the side effects of communication technology on this blog. This is one side effect that was very positive.

From a marketers point of view, viral communications can be a dream – or nightmare – come true. Which it is depends on the content of the communication being spread. Several weeks ago, I wrote a post about viral communications “gone bad.” It was a review of Steven Wyer’s compelling book about Internet defamation and invasion of privacy. His book is called Violated Online. Happily, this experience was all positive.

 Lessons learned

I took three things away from this experience:

  1. Viral communications can improve site traffic exponentially. From an average of 100 visitors a day, traffic on BobRehak.com jumped to 10,000 in a little more than 24 hours. That’s a 100x increase from just one initial link!
  2. Quality content is what keeps viral communication going. Without friends telling their friends, referrals die out.
  3. Perhaps marketers should spend more time improving the quality of their communication and less time carpet bombing the public with insipid ads and commercials that people ignore.

Media Multitasking and Depression

shutterstock_104973152In my two previous posts, I explored the relationship between depression and Internet addiction, then depression and television viewing. Academic researchers have found positive correlations in both cases. This caused me to wonder whether a relationship existed between depression and multitasking.

Increase in Multitasking

Overall media use among America’s youth increased by 20% over the past decade. However, the amount of time spent multitasking with media (simultaneously interacting with more than one form of media) increased by 119% during the same time period [1].

Study Links Multitasking to Depression

Mark W. Becker, Reem Alzahabi, and Christopher J. Hopwood of Michigan State University published a study called Media Multitasking Is Associated with Symptoms of Depression and Social Anxiety in the February, 2013, issue of the journal Cyberspychology, Behavior and Social Networking. They studied 319 people and found that media multitasking was associated with higher rates of depression.

The authors couldn’t tell whether multitasking led to higher stress and depression or whether depressed people distracted themselves with multitasking to avoid coping with negative emotions. Given the relationships previously discussed between television viewing, Internet addiction and and depression, I have formulated an opinion on the relationship.

My Take

I personally subscribe to the theory, which Becker and his colleagues cite at the beginning of their study, that multitasking may be replacing face-to-face interactions [2], resulting in lower quality social interactions [3,4] and impaired psychosocial functioning [5,6].

Talking face-to-face and working side-by-side with friends and family is an infinitely richer and more rewarding experience than self-entertainment through media multitasking. It’s like the difference between healthy food and junk food.

Instead of working out their problems with others or honing their social skills, teens escape into a world of media multitasking. This world doesn’t argue with them, mock them, bully them or ostracize them. It’s a pleasant form of escapism that numbs the senses by overloading them. It’s fun. It’s entertaining. It’s much easier than dealing with the real world. And it doesn’t have the stigma or costs associated with drugs or alcohol.

Kids can even pretend to be doing their homework while working on their laptops. The noise coming from TV, music, and video games combines with the distraction of social networks, emails and texts to help them forget whatever is causing their depression. Being able to multitask is even considered a positive trait among many in business.

Multitasking isn’t all bad unless it turns into an addiction, such as a shopping addiction. Shopping addicts shop because their purchases give them a pleasant buzz. Then, when the bill comes due (which they can’t pay), it deepens their depression, leads to more shopping and a downward spiral. A similar mechanism may be at work with multitasking for the segment of the population prone to depression.

We’ve all fallen into the trap from time to time of mistaking activity for achievement. We succumb to the tyranny of the urgent and the easy over the important. Answering emails, texts, and checking social networks somehow seems more important than that big long-term project due at the end of the week.

The scary thing about 10.5 hours of multimedia exposure per day with kids and teenagers is that it happens at a time when their cognitive and thought processes are being formed. To the extent that it becomes a habit or an addiction, the pattern becomes hard to break.

Statistics On Depression

Depression takes a huge toll on America’s health and productivity.  According to Mental Health America, It affects more than 21 million American children and adults annually and is the leading cause of disability in the United States for individuals ages 15 to 44. Lost productive time among U.S. workers due to depression is estimated to be in excess of $31 billion per year. It is also the principal cause of more than 38,000 suicides in the U.S. each year.

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  1. Rideout V, Foehr U, Roberts D., Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds. Menlo Park, CA: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. 2010.
  2. Nie NH. Sociability, interpersonal relations, and the Internet: Reconciling conflicting findings. American Behavioral Scientist Special Issue: The Internet in everyday life. 2001;45(3):420-35.
  3.  Lee PSN, Leung L, Lo V, Xiong C, Wu T. Internet communication versus face-to-
    face interaction in quality of life. Social Indicators Research. 2011;100(3):375-89.
  4.  Moody EJ. Internet use and its relationship to loneliness. CyberPsychology & Behavior. 2001;4(3):393-401.
  5.  Kraut R, Patterson M, Lundmark V, Kiesler S, Mukophadhyay T, Scherlis W. Internet paradox: A social technology that reduces social involvement and psychological well-being? American Psychologist. 1998;53(9):1017-31.
  6. Shapira NA, Lessig MC, Goldsmith TD, et al. Problematic internet use: Proposed classification and diagnostic criteria. Depression and Anxiety. 2003;17(4):207-16.

Heavy television viewing among teens increases risk of depression later in life

Teenagers who watch a large amount of television are significantly more likely to become depressed later in life according to a longitudinal study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

The 2009 study titled Association Between Media Use in Adolescence and Depression in Young Adulthood was conducted by Brian A. Primack, MD, EdM, MS, Brandi Swanier, BA, Anna M. Georgiopoulos, MD, Stephanie R. Land, PhD, and Michael J. Fine, MD, MSc

shutterstock_72027346

Objective and Methodology

These researchers sought to assess the association between media exposure in adolescence and depression in young adulthood. They used a nationally representative sample – the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health (Add Health) – to investigate the relationship between electronic media exposure in 4142 adolescents who were not depressed at baseline and development of depression seven years later. Initially, the teens were asked how many hours they had spent watching television each week. They reported an average of 2.3 hours. Seven years later (at an average age of 21.8), participants were screened again. More than 300, 7.4 percent had developed symptoms consistent with depression.

Findings: More TV Increases Risk of Depression

“Those reporting more television use had significantly greater odds of developing depression for each additional hour of daily television use. In addition, those reporting more total media exposure had significantly greater odds of developing depression for each additional hour of daily use.”

While the researchers did not find a consistent relationship between development of depressive symptoms and exposure to pre-recorded video, computer games, or radio, they did find a statistically significant correlation at the 95% confidence level with television.

Interestingly, they also found that men were more likely than women to develop depression given the same total media exposure.

How Television May Cause Depression

Results suggest that media exposure may influence development of depression through a variety of factors. Some are related to the medium itself, others to content.

Relating to the medium itself, the researchers theorize that:

  • Time spent passively watching television could displace more positive interaction with family and friends
  • The audio and video could energize the senses in ways that contribute to poor sleep.
  • Excessive viewing could interfere with development of good thinking skills, and potentially contribute to cognitive distortions.

Regarding potential links related to content, the researchers point to facts such as:

  • Large amounts of advertising which may present adolescents with unattainable images
  • Role models that exhibit high degrees of risk taking behaviors
  • Stereotypical characters that may affect self-image
  • Anxiety-provoking shows.

Why is this so crucial? The authors point to other studies that show:

  • Depression is the leading cause of nonfatal disability worldwide.1
  • Because onset of depression is common in adolescence and young adulthood,2, 3 it coincides with a pivotal period of physical and psychological development.
  • Depression can lead to poorer psychosocial functioning, lower life and career satisfaction, more interpersonal difficulty, greater need for social support, other related psychiatric conditions such as anxiety, and increased risk of suicide.4, 5

My Take

It should be noted that since this study was conducted four years ago, television viewing among teens has increased. Many now use it as a background medium while multitasking. Through multitasking, teens are now exposed to an average of 10.5 hours of media content per day – up TWO HOURS per day from an average of 8.5 hours when these researchers conducted their study.

To be sure, not all of those 10.5 hours are spent on television, but the trend is alarming – especially when you conider that internet addiction (IA) is also becoming a problem among teens and that IA has also been linked to depression. (See previous post.) This could help explain, in part, a 400% increase in the use of antidepressants reported by the CDC.

In my next post, I’ll explore the relationship between multitasking and depression.

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  1. Lopez AD, Mathers CD, Ezzati M, Jamison DT, Murray CJ. Global and regional burden of disease and risk factors, 2001: systematic analysis of population health data. Lancet. 2006;367(9524):1747–1757. [PubMed]
  2. Blazer DG, Kessler RC, McGonagle KA, Swartz MS. The prevalence and distribution of major depression in a national community sample: the National Comorbidity Survey. Am J Psychiatry. 1994;151(7):979–986. [PubMed]
  3. Commission on Adolescent Depression and Bipolar Disorder . Depression and bipolar disorder. In: Evans DL, Foa EB, Gur RE, et al., editors. Treating and Preventing Adolescent Mental Health Disorders: What We Know and What We Don’t Know: A Research Agenda for Improving the Mental Health of Our Youth. Oxford University Press; New York, NY: 2005.
  4. Paradis AD, Reinherz HZ, Giaconia RM, Fitzmaurice G. Major depression in the transition to adulthood: the impact of active and past depression on young adult functioning. J Nerv Ment Dis. 2006;194(5):318–323. [PubMed]
  5. Reinherz HZ, Giaconia RM, Hauf AM, Wasserman MS, Silverman AB. Major depression in the transition to adulthood: risks and impairments. J Abnorm Psychol. 1999;108(3):500–510. [PubMed]

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.