The Shrink Tank

Psychotherapy in practice, research, and pop culture

Depression in the Digital World

If you’re reading this online…you’re probably depressed

An upcoming study out of the University of Leeds reports a significant link between the amount of time people spend online with the amount of time they feel down in the dumps. The study will be published in this month's issue of the journal Psychopathology.

The study examined responses from over 1,300 people to (ironically), an online questionnaire probing their internet habits and also their depressive symptoms. According to the study's authors, people who spend a lot of time browsing the Internet are more likely to show depressive symptoms.

"Our research indicates that excessive internet use is associated with depression, but what we don't know is which comes first," said lead author Dr. Catriona Morrison, "are depressed people drawn to the internet or does the internet cause depression?"

The researchers also classified a small subset of their sample as "internet addicts". The afflicted individuals find it difficult to control the amount of time spent online and their time spent surfing the web significantly interferes with their daily lives, ability to work or go to school, and social relationships.

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Internet depression and addictionThese internet addicts are more likely to have a more severe degree of depression than their casual web-surfing counterparts. What exactly do these net junkies spend their online time doing? A greater proportion of their browsing time is spent viewing sexual content, gaming online, and interacting in online social communities.

"This study reinforces the public speculation that over-engaging in websites that serve to replace normal social function might be linked to psychological disorders like depression and addiction," said 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."

Internet use might drain your brain and sap away your time, but I suspect that those who prone to bad feelings and deep depressions may actually be looking to the internet for solace and fulfillment. The links to social media sites, gaming groups and pornography can provide isolated and ostracized individuals with the kinds of connection, belonging, and sexual gratification that may be missing in their everyday offline lives. The sense of satisfaction that comes along with these internet indulgences likely feeds a negative cycle where more time spent online means less physical activity and less social contact, increasing the vulnerability to depression.

We have a complicated relationship with digital media. Our ability to connect to others, communicate with the masses (hello blogosphere!), and retrieve information at a click is astounding and unprecedented. We used to have touch-tone phones instead of touch-screen PDAs. Even those of us who grew up without the internet, email, Crackberries, Google or Wikipedia can hardly imagine what we could possibly do without them. Most of us are plugged in pretty much 24/7, and it may come with significant costs to our health and happiness. It's probably not realistic or useful to go off the grid for good, but just make sure you find some time to unplug and unwind.

Jared DeFife, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Emory University School of Medicine."

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