Internet usage does not appear to harm mental health, study finds

The findings contradict other studies that have suggested a link between social media usage and poor mental health

6th December 2023 about a 4 minute read
“Our results do not provide evidence supporting the view that the internet and technologies enabled by it, such as smartphones with internet access, are actively promoting or harming either wellbeing or mental health globally." Professor Andrew Przybylski and Professor Matti Vuorre, co-authors of the study

A large-scale study of internet usage has found no significant evidence that online activities such as gaming or browsing social media cause harm to mental health.

The research, carried out by the Oxford Internet Institute, looked at the internet usage of more than 2m people aged 15 to 89. Filtering the results by age group and sex did not reveal any specific demographic patterns among internet users. The researchers said their study, the largest of its kind, found no evidence to support “popular ideas that certain groups are more at risk” from the technology.”

Andrew Przybylski, professor of human behaviour and technology at the institute, and co-author of the study, added a caveat, however. He told the Financial Times that the data necessary to establish a causal connection was “absent” without more co-operation from technology companies. If apps do harm mental health, only the companies that build them have the user data that could prove it, he said.

More conclusive evidence needed

“The best data we have available suggests that there is not a global link between these factors,” said Przybylski. Because the “stakes are so high” if online activity really did lead to mental health problems, any regulation aimed at addressing it should be based on much more “conclusive” evidence, he added.

The study, published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, was co-authored with Matti Vuorre, a professor at Tilburg University. It looked at data on three aspects of psychological wellbeing from 2.4m people aged 15 to 89 in 168 countries between 2005 and 2022. The authors contrasted the data with industry data about growth in internet subscriptions over that time, as well as tracking associations between mental health and internet adoption in 202 countries from 2000-19.

“Our results do not provide evidence supporting the view that the internet and technologies enabled by it, such as smartphones with internet access, are actively promoting or harming either wellbeing or mental health globally,” they conclude, adding: “Our results also suggest that age- and sex-based differences in associations linking Internet-technology adoption and well-being are small.” While there was “some evidence” of greater associations between mental health problems and technology among younger people, these “appeared small in magnitude.” Amongst older people, they write, the associations between internet use and mental health were sometimes “positive.”

Regulatory proposals are ‘wellbeing theatre’

The authors write that their findings are “suggestive but are not intended to provide evidence for or against causal relations.” They add that “future studies should investigate other potential differences based on demographic, economic, and cultural factors.”

The findings contradict a growing body of research in recent years that has connected the introduction of the smartphone, in about 2010, with growing rates of anxiety and depression, especially among teenage girls. Studies have suggested that reducing time on social media can benefit mental health, while those who spend the longest online are at greater risk of harm. Przybylski, however, said that while much of the existing research into the relationship between technology and mental health or wellbeing attracts attention, “the standards of evidence are quite poor”. The vast majority of studies published on the topic focused on English-speaking countries, he said, while more than 90% of young people live outside North America and Europe.

He compared regulatory proposals such as banning phone use for under-16s or limiting access to certain social media apps to security checks at airports, describing them as “wellbeing theatre”. He added: “If you really want an answer to this question, you have to hit pause on implementing your random idea you think is going to save young people. You should have the type of data that would be required for a diagnosis before you start proposing solutions or treatments.”

FCC Insight

The findings of this study are surprising, and contradict a long-held narrative that social media use in particular is having a detrimental effect on mental health, particularly among young people. The very large size of the study means that its findings should be taken seriously, however, and it may provide reassurance to parents worried about the impact of social media use on their children’s wellbeing. It is clear, however, that as the authors say, co-operation from technology companies is needed in future research, so that more detailed data on usage can be correlated with mental health outcomes.