A study of the psychological well-being of two million individuals from 2005 to 2022 in 168 countries released Tuesday by the Oxford Internet Institute found “smaller and less consistent associations than would be expected if the internet were causing widespread psychological harm.”
“We looked very hard for a ‘smoking gun’ linking technology and well-being, and we didn’t find it,” OII Professor Andrew Przybylski, one of the authors of the study, said in a statement.
“We studied the most extensive data on well-being 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,” co-author Assistant Professor Matti Vuorre added in a statement.
One focus area of the researchers was the potential impact of the internet on certain age and gender groups. “We meticulously tested whether there is anything special in terms of age or gender, but there is no evidence to support popular ideas that certain groups are more at risk,” Przybylski said.
In recent times, the internet has been accused of having harmful effects on younger users, such as exposing them to cyberbullying and inappropriate content, addicting them to online usage, and violating their privacy.
The researchers noted that filtering their results by age group and gender did not reveal any specific demographic patterns among internet users, including women and young girls.
In fact, they added, for the average country, life satisfaction had increased more for females over the period.
Individual Nuance Missing
Although the study reveals the impact of the internet on a large group of people, it doesn’t speak to the nuances of individuals, noted Karen Kovacs North, director of the Annenberg Program on Online Communities at the University of Southern California.
“I wouldn’t take this to mean that digital influences don’t have an impact on an individual’s satisfaction or emotional well-being,” she told TechNewsWorld.
Like any tool, the impact the internet will have on any individual depends largely on how they use it, added Ashley Johnson, a senior policy manager at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a research and public policy organization in Washington, D.C.
“There’s enormous variability in how people use the internet, so I think seeing seemingly contradictory conclusions from different studies on the effects of internet adoption actually makes sense,” she told TechNewsWorld.
“I don’t think we’ll find one universal answer to the question of how the internet affects us because it affects us in so many different ways,” she continued, “which I think creates an opportunity for nuanced research into how our actions and the actions of various companies and regulators can lead either to better or worse psychological outcomes.”
More Tech Cooperation Needed
Julie Ancis, a professor and founding director of cyberpsychology at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, N.J., added that how people use technology, how much time people spend with it, and what people view are important variables that can contribute to an individual’s well-being.
“Research on the relationship between social media use and well-being often leads to mixed results,” she told TechNewsWorld. “A multitude of variables need to be considered.”
Among the variables cited by Ancis are an individual’s usage — active, passive, or addictive, and their mental health and strength of offline interactions.
“I applaud the authors for conducting a massive longitudinal study on this topic,” she said, “and future research should focus on exploring specific variables including, but not limited to, the type of internet use, personality characteristics of participants, and the level of offline support.”
In their research, Przybylski and Vuorre called on tech companies to be more cooperative with researchers.
Technology companies need to provide more data if there is to be conclusive evidence of the impacts of internet use, they maintained. 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.
It is crucial to study, in more detail and with more transparency from all stakeholders, data on individual adoption of and engagement with internet-based technologies, they continued. These data exist and are continuously analyzed by global technology firms for marketing and product improvement but, unfortunately, are not accessible for independent research.
Tech companies have their reasons for keeping their data close to their motherboards.
“Some of the top concerns I see or hear from companies are the risk of exposing trade secrets or unintentionally creating a roadmap for bad actors to exploit their services, such as ways to avoid getting flagged for posting rule-infringing content,” Johnson said.
“But there are solutions that don’t involve broadcasting that information to the whole world,” she continued. “Researchers should have more access to information they need to study internet-related phenomena, and we may need regulation to achieve that level of transparency across the board.”
Data Dilemma: Privacy vs Research
“A lot of the data that would be helpful would contain specific information about data collection and use of the data for algorithms that curate experiences,” North added. “That’s how tech companies make their money, so I don’t think they’re going to give up that data.”
“I don’t know how you would disaggregate the data that is used for their success from the data that researchers would want to study,” she said. “That’s their secret sauce, and they’re not going to give it up.”
North noted the results of the study could influence how policymakers look at Big Tech. “They’re going to have to refine their opinions and understand that perhaps digital overall is not a villain,” she observed. “Policy maybe shouldn’t be so broad and global. Instead, it has to address specific problems with specific calculations.”
Dr. Jeffrey Singer, a senior fellow and practicing surgeon at the Cato Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank, added, “While it may intuitively seem that the internet is harmful to mental health and may cause addiction, the research is very inconclusive.”
“It is likely that the causes of feelings of despair and other mental health problems are multifactorial,” he told TechNewsWorld. “Therefore, lawmakers should not rush into any sort of legislation when our knowledge about this issue is still in its infancy.”
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