According to research published in the Journal of Medical Research, depending on what the internet is used for, it can be associated with either an increase in symptoms of depression or a decrease in symptoms of depression.
The study was conducted by Katie Bessière, Sara Kiesler, and Robert Kraut of the Carnegie Mellon University and Sarah Pressman of the University of Kansas.
Bessière and her colleagues conducted the study “to determine whether using the Internet for health purposes is beneficial or harmful to physical and psychological well-being.”
In their study, Bessière and her colleagues recruited 2700 participants using random digit dialing. These participants were asked to completed three questionnaires over a period of 18 months. (Between 2000 and 2002.) Of the 2700 participants initially recruited and surveyed, 740 completed all three questionnaires.
The questionnaires the participants received were designed to assess a number of different variables, including demographic information, whether they suffered from a serious illness or cared for someone who did, their levels of depression, their general health, and “how often they had used the Internet for 27 different purposes in the previous six months.”
According to Bessière and her colleagues,
“At the time of the first questionnaire, respondents who had a serious illness themselves or those who cared for someone with a serious illness were more likely to use the Internet for health purposes. Those who were more depressed at the time of the first questionnaire were more likely to use the Internet for escape and to obtain health resources, but were less likely to use it for communicating with friends and family or for shopping.”
They also found that “using the internet to obtain health resources was associated with increased depression after accounting for initial depression” while those “who used the internet for communication with friends and family, on the other hand, reported reduced depression after accounting for initial depression.” These differences held regardless of whether the participants were healthy or ill.
In addition, the study found that younger participants tended to use the internet to meet others more than older participants, who were more likely to use the internet to obtain health information.
Bessière and her colleagues speculate that the association between using the internet to obtain health-related information may be associated with depression because of the lack of good medical advice. As they explain, this poor medical advice may cause “inaccurate self-diagnosis, poor health behaviors (eg, herbal remedies), or potentially unnecessary worry.”
Bessière and her colleagues state in their conclusion that,
Our results suggest that using the Internet to obtain health resources is associated with increases in symptoms of depression. This finding cannot be interpreted as a broad effect of being online, since we also showed that communicating online with friends and family was associated with declines in symptoms of depression. However, since we did not control the uses of the Internet chosen by respondents, we cannot determine whether these effects were due to characteristics of the individuals or the nature of the online resources they used, or both.
Bessière, K., Pressman, S., Kiesler, S. & Kraut, R. (2010). Effects of internet use on health and depression: a longitudinal study. Journal of Medical Research, Vol 12, No 1. Full text: http://www.jmir.org/2010/1/e6/HTML