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Why it matters: It's long been claimed that using the internet, social media apps, and smartphones has a negative effect on our mental health. However, a new study that used data from over 2 million people disputes this belief. The researchers say they looked for a smoking gun linking tech with mental well-being, but didn't find it.
Andrew Przybylski, a professor of human behavior and technology at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII), and Matti Vuorre, a research associate at OII, authored a study titled "Global Well-Being and Mental Health in the Internet Age." It investigates the long-held belief that the internet has a detrimental effect on users' mental health.
One of the significant differences between this study and similar investigations is its expansive data set. The researchers gathered data from 2.4 million people aged between 15 and 89 in 168 countries between 2005 and 2022.
The first part of the study focused on the participants' psychological well-being based on self-reports of life satisfaction, positive experiences, and negative experiences. This was contrasted against each country's internet and mobile broadband adoption over the past two decades.
The second part of the study focused on mental health using meta-analytic rates of anxiety, depression, and self-harm over 20 years and their associations with internet-technology adoption.
The researchers concluded that there have been only small and inconsistent changes in global well-being and mental health across the past twenty years. This is despite global internet usage increasing from 17% in 2005 to 65.7% in 2023, suggesting no link between the two.
"We looked very hard for a 'smoking gun' linking technology and well-being and we didn't find it," said Przybylski. "The popular idea that the internet and mobile phones have a blanket negative effect on wellbeing and mental health is not likely to be accurate," he added.
"It is indeed possible that there are smaller and more important things going on, but any sweeping claims about the negative impact of the internet globally should be treated with a very high level of skepticism."
In addition to gathering data from users directly, the researchers collected information from technology companies, though this proved difficult given the security restrictions applied to certain data. The researchers urged these firms to be more open with this information for the sake of studies like these.
"These data exist and are continuously analyzed by global technology firms for marketing and product improvement but unfortunately are not accessible for independent research," the researchers said.
One section of the report that did agree with other studies is the association between social media use and life satisfaction being more negative at specific time windows in adolescence.
Back in 2021, leaked documents showed that Facebook had spent the last few years examining the effects Instagram has on younger users' mental health. The company had long insisted that social media can positively impact users' state of mind, but its research appeared to contradict those statements. "We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls," stated a Facebook internal presentation.
In October, it was reported that 40 US states are suing Facebook for harming children's mental health, claiming parent company Meta had "profited from children's pain."