New research suggests that using the internet as an escape from worry may be harmless in the short term, but can lead to emotional issues down the line. The study found that people with a greater tendency to use the internet as a distraction had higher average levels of problematic internet use and depression. The findings were published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.
People are spending more time online than ever, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. But when a person loses control over their internet use such that it interferes with other activities in their lives, psychologists refer to it as “Problematic Internet Use.” A lack of control over one’s internet activity has been associated with a range of negative mental health outcomes, although the pathway behind this relationship remains unclear.
Study authors Cristóbal Hernández and his team aimed to explore whether the tendency to use the internet as a distraction from negative emotions might play a role in the equation. When people persistently use the internet to distract themselves from difficult situations, this may reinforce the idea that difficult situations are unchangeable, thus reinforcing feelings of depression. The researchers conducted a longitudinal study to explore how the use of the internet as a distraction, problematic internet use, and depressive symptomology interact over time.
A group of 163 individuals from Chile took part in the study and responded to surveys for 35 days. Every two days, participants were asked questions related to problematic internet use (“In the last two days it was hard for me to control the time I spent connected to the Internet, videogames or social media”) and use of the internet as a distraction (“In the last two days I used the Internet to disconnect myself from my worries”). Depressive symptomology was assessed every five days.
Of note, participant data was collected during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, between April and June 2020 — a time when stress levels were high and internet use was higher than normal.
The researchers found that people with a greater average tendency to use the internet as a distraction from worry also had higher average levels of depression and higher average levels of problematic internet use. Notably, momentary fluctuations in using the internet as a distraction were not associated with momentary increases in depression. The authors say this suggests that using the internet as an escape from emotions is not maladaptive in the short-term, but in the long-term — if one’s average levels are high — it can become harmful to mental health.
“Substantively speaking,” Hernández and his colleagues write, “chronically using the internet to disconnect from worries may work as an emotional buffer to mitigate negative emotionality in the short run, but at the cost of consolidating a problematic use of technology, and depressive symptoms if it becomes a habit.”
Furthermore, mediation analysis suggested that problematic internet use helped explain the link between using the internet as a distraction and depression. Participants with higher levels of internet distraction on average tended to show greater difficulty controlling their internet use over time, which was in turn linked to higher average levels of depressive symptoms. The inverse pathway was also significant — subjects with higher average levels of depression tended to show greater difficulty controlling their internet use, which was in turn linked to a higher average tendency to use the internet as a distraction from worry.
The authors say their findings underscore the importance of considering a person’s intentions to use the internet when addressing issues with control over internet use. Future studies should be conducted to see if the results replicate outside the context of COVID-19.
The study, “Watching the world from my screen: A longitudinal evaluation of the influence of a problematic use of the internet on depressive symptomatology”, was authored by Cristóbal Hernández, Marianne Cottin, Fernando Parada, Nicolás Labbé, Catalina Núñez, Yamil Quevedo, Antonella Davanzo, and Alex Behn.