Does excessive Internet use cause depression?

One of the challenges for genuine evaluation is striking a balance between being overly bold in statements and overly cautious.  An example of an  analysis that seems to strike this balance is in the Health: Best Treatments blog (a joint project of The British Medical Journal and The Guardian newspaper) of the limitations of recent research that reported:

About 1 in 100 people are ‘addicted’ to using the internet, and these people have a greater risk of becoming depressed.

The analysis discusses the limitations of the study in terms of sampling method (volunteer), sample size (especially of those who were classified as addicted), operationalization of key variables, and  of course the question of which causes which.

Popular reports of the study acknowledged the issue about causation (such as Reuters) but seemed to leave unchallenged the claims about incidence rates.

3 comments to Does excessive Internet use cause depression?

  • To me, a part of the question is, does excess in anything cause depression? There seems to be a tendency to focus on the “problem of the day” (in River City it was pool that was the big problem – that led to trouble with a capital “T” that rhymes with P and stands for Pool, for those of you who remember the song….); later it was TV, now it is the internet. So the question this leaves me with is whether or not this kind of study is asking the right questions. How do we make that the focus of conversation in the media?
    Fred

  • Patricia Rogers

    Good question, Fred. The problem is not just one study being poorly reported but the cumulative effect of having many studies reported in this way, which leads to an impression either that “everything is bad for you” (a common response to dietary research) or conversely, “it’s impossible to know anything”.

    Some of the solution include journalists and columnists being recruited and trained in being critical of research results – not in the sense of nit-picking any research as not being definitive, but distinguishing between credible evidence and really poor quality. This is hard to do as newspapers come under increasing financial pressure.
    It’s not always possible to respond to each news item. Letters to the Editor are slow and not always published.

    I think part of the problem lies in incentives for researchers to publish and be cited (performance measures for academics are about the number of publications and their citation rate), which leads to an increasing number of trivial studies being reported in inappropriate ways.

  • Patricia

    Another way to reduce the poor level of reporting of evaluation and research results is to improve the overall level of evaluation literacy. Books like “The Numbers Game” http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/03/books/03gewen.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1 will go some way to doing this. What are other useful books about these issues that might be recommended for wider reading?