Depressed over your Web use? Or the latest study?

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This is what I look like after long hours on the Internet. But that does not mean I’m depressed.

And neither does the widely reported study in this week’s journal, Psychopathology, prove that long hours on the Web cause depression.

That’s because it’s an observational study – the kind that can’t prove causation – even if it can point to a statistical association. As the excellent UK site, Behind the Headlines, points out:

The study has several limitations and cannot prove that using the internet can lead to depression as reported in several newspapers:

* Cross-sectional studies can only investigate associations between variables because they cannot establish the temporal relationship between them, i.e. which happened first. It is possible that people use the internet more often because they are already depressed and withdrawn, not the other way round.
* The sample was not representative of UK internet users in general. Recruitment took place through social-networking sites, which not all people use, and hence has sampled a predominantly younger population with an average age of 21.
* Although the study used validated questionnaires to examine the outcomes of interest, all were self-completed so there may be some unavoidable inaccuracy. Also, a single questionnaire assessment cannot be taken as a definite diagnosis of either addiction or depression.
* The study has not been able to examine the wider personal, social, professional and health circumstances of the participants, and it is these factors that are likely to be the main influence on an individual’s mental health.
* Only 18 people were considered to have internet addiction, so examining associations between other factors in this small number of people is likely to involve some inaccuracy.

So let’s not get all depressed over long hours on the Web.

By the way, when did so many journalists (BBC, HealthDay, Reuters, Business Week, NY Daily News, LA Times, etc.) start reporting studies in the journal, Psychopathology?

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February 3, 2010 at 5:33 pm

I did a project with Kaiser (google “eCare for Moods”) where we monitored patients with major depressive disorder via an on-line tool. The more depressed patients were, the more they interacted with the system, but they seemed to get better (and certainly got no worse). This offers a data point to contradict any causal relationship. My system only engaged patients once a week and so did not dominate their internet use. What the Psychopathology study does suggest is that on-line depression management makes sense: depressed patients can be engaged on-line.