Scientists release findings from major study into internet and mental health – with surprising conclusion

This picture taken on July 16, 2021 shows Melissa using her mobile phone to message her virtual boyfriend - a chatbot created by XiaoIce, a cutting-edge artificial intelligence system designed to create emotional bonds its user - on her mobile phone in Beijing. - Melissa breaks up the isolation of urban life with a virtual chatbot created by XiaoIce, a cutting-edge artificial intelligence system designed to create emotional bonds with its 660 million users worldwide (AFP via Getty Images)

There is no clear link between mobile phones and the internet and a negative impact on mental wellbeing, the authors of a major new study have found.

Researchers took data on two million people aged between 15 and 89, from 168 countries. While they found that negative and positive experiences had both increased, they found little evidence that was the result of the prevalence of the internet.

The results from the major study, led by the Oxford Internet Institute, contradict widespread speculation that the internet – and especially its widespread availability through mobile devices – has damaged mental wellbeing.

The researchers said that if the link between internet use and poor health were as universal and robust as many think, they would have found it.

However, the study did not look at social media use, and although the data included some young people, the researchers did not analyse how long people spent online.

Professor Andrew Przybylski, of the Oxford Internet Institute and Assistant Professor Matti Vuorre, Tilburg University and Research Associate, Oxford Internet Institute, carried out the research into home and mobile broadband use.

Prof Przybylski, said: “We looked very hard for a ‘smoking gun’ linking technology and wellbeing and we didn’t find it.”

He added: “The popular idea that the internet and mobile phones have a blanket negative effect on wellbeing and mental health is not likely to be accurate.

“It is indeed possible that there are smaller and more important things going on, but any sweeping claims about the negative impact of the internet globally should be treated with a very high level of scepticism.”

Looking at the results by age group and gender did not reveal any specific patterns among internet users, including women and young girls.

Instead, the study, which looked at data for the past two decades, found that for the average country, life satisfaction increased more for females over the period.

Data from the United Kingdom was included in the study, but the researchers say there was nothing distinctive about the UK compared with other countries.

Although the study included a lot of information, the researchers say technology companies need to provide more data, if there is to be conclusive evidence of the impacts of internetuse.

They explain: “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.

“These data exist and are continuously analysed by global technology firms for marketing and product improvement but unfortunately are not accessible for independent research.”

For the study, published in the Clinical Psychological Science journal, the researchers looked at data on wellbeing and mental health against a country’s internet users and mobile broadband subscriptions and use, to see if internet adoption predicted psychological wellbeing.

In the second study they used data on rates of anxiety, depression and self-harm from 2000-2019 in some 200 countries.

Wellbeing was assessed using data from face-to-face and phone surveys by local interviewers, and mental health was assessed using statistical estimates of depressive disorders, anxiety disorders and self-harm in some 200 countries from 2000 to 2019.