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Families Given Macintoshes Become More Isolated and Depressed

Leonard Holmes, Ph.D.                       http://mentalhealth.about.com

You may have read that the Internet causes people to become depressed and isolated.   Amy Harmon's New York Times Article got the headline "Researchers Find Sad, Lonely World in Cyberspace."  As is often the case, the headline was a bit more extreme than the article.  The full study is available online. (An earlier draft has been available for some time.)  It is also in the September issue of American Psychologist

The study, called HomeNet, was performed at Carnegie Mellon's Human Computer Interaction Institute. I was impressed with some aspects of the study. They did a very good job of recording actual behaviors rather than relying on people's self-report of their Internet activity. By giving people a computer, a second phone line, and Internet access they were able to look at what happens when people actually connect for the first time.

This last point also creates some problems, I think. These were families who had not taken it upon themselves to connect to the Internet. I'm not sure that they are representative of those families who voluntarily connect to the Net because of their own motivation to do so. To give people a free computer and study their behavior is a little like using lottery winners to study money management skills. Maybe the headlines should read "Families Given Macintoshes Become More Isolated and Depressed."

The measure of depression does not actually measure clinical depression.  It is suited for a study like this where researchers want to pick-up depressive trends in a normal population.  Nothing in this study suggests that the Internet can contribute to clinical depression. It suggests that there can be a down-turn in mood after two years of Internet use. I'm not sure that the "depression" results will hold up in future studies.

The social involvement decrease is less surprising, and I expect that it will be replicated. The authors do a good job of discussing the possible reasons. I think that both things are probably happening. People are spending time online, and some of this time is at the expense of social activities. They may also be replacing face-to-face relationships based on "strong ties" with "virtual" relationships which are described as relationships based on "weak ties."

The authors are clear that email is used somewhat more than the web by most participants. The participants did seem to be using the Internet to interact rather than to simply retrieve information.

We all need to maintain a balance in our lives.

I think that we instinctively know this when it comes to social activity. If we get overloaded we crave solitude. If we get lonely we crave contact. Maybe one problem with the Internet is that we get both - solitude and contact. This may mislead people and leave them with an imbalance that they don't immediately notice.

Leonard Holmes, Ph.D.                       http://mentalhealth.about.com

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