An extensive study of some two million people by researchers at Oxford University has yielded surprising results: they have been unable to identify substantial evidence of harm to mental health caused by internet use.
“Links between internet adoption and psychological wellbeing are small at most, despite popular assumptions about the negative psychological effects of internet technologies and platforms,” reads a statement released last week by Oxford University.
This conclusion is the result of an investigation designed to examine the extent to which three indicators of psychological wellbeing, including life satisfaction, have changed over time in association with the use of the internet and mobile broadband.
To do this, the experts carried out self-assessment questionnaires and analysed data from 2,434,203 people aged 15-89 in 168 countries between 2005 and 2022.
Among the key findings is the fact that both positive and negative experiences experienced by participants increased over this period, but the researchers found no significant evidence to suggest that internet use was in any way the cause.
They go even further, explaining that the few associations observed between internet use and mental health were smaller and “less consistent than would be expected if the internet were causing widespread psychological harm”.
“We looked very hard for a ‘smoking gun’ linking technology and wellbeing and didn’t find it,” said professor Andrew Przybylski, who is affiliated with the Oxford Internet Institute.
Dr Matti Vuorre, a study co-author, added: “We studied the most extensive data on wellbeing and internet adoption ever considered, both over time and population demographics. Although we couldn’t address causal effects of internet use, our descriptive results indicated small and inconsistent associations.”
Faced with these unexpected results, the researchers went further to determine whether there were any specific patterns, or different conclusions, depending on the age and gender of the participants.
The authors report that there were no specific demographic trends among internet users, including women and girls. They even point out that, on average, life satisfaction increased among women over the study period.
“We put our findings under a more extreme test to see if there are matters which we have missed, and while we did find increased mobile broadband adoption predicted greater life satisfaction, this association was too small to be of practical significance,” the authors explained.
It should be noted, however, that this study has certain limitations: the researchers point to a lack of data provided by technology companies to obtain conclusive evidence of the impact of internet use.
“Research on the effects of internet technologies is stalled because the data most urgently needed are collected and held behind closed doors by technology companies and online platforms,” they explained.
The aim now is to be able to obtain and use this data in order to study in greater detail whether internet use really does have any adverse effect on users’ mental health.