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October 2, 2012

Can Internet Habits Predict Depression?

Most of us understand that the content of what we post, tweet or share over the web can say a great deal about our personalities and frame of mind, but what about the mechanics of internet usage—how often we email others, chat online, stream media, or multi-task (i.e, switch from one website to another)? Turns out these habits may be just as psychologically revealing, according to new research that shows internet usage habits can predict a particularly important aspect of the self: the tendency to experience depression.

In the study, a research team from Missouri University of Science & Technology asked 216 undergraduate volunteers to fill out a survey identifying depressive symptoms. Researchers then collected a month’s worth of internet data from the students, with pseudonyms assigned to each participant to keep identities anonymous.

When researchers went back and analyzed the data collected, they found that students who showed signs of depression used the internet much differently than the other study participants. Depressed students tended to spend more time using file-sharing services, sending email, chatting online, watching videos, and playing online games. Students who indicated symptoms of depression also appeared to use the internet in a more random manner by frequently switching between sites.

What’s important here is that researchers didn’t know what people were looking at on the internet, but merely how they were using the internet. None of the data categories gave specific information about what websites people were visiting (for example, depression support message boards), the content of their emails or chats, or the types of files being downloaded—they simply indicated the extent to which people used different broad categories of net-based resources.

So, if no specific websites or email content was collected, what is it about internet usage that can identify and predict depression? Although the exact reasons are unknown, say researchers, each behavior they noticed tends to correspond with previous research on depression. As Scientific American notes, quickly switching between websites may reflect anhedonia (a decreased ability to experience emotions), as people desperately seek emotional stimulation. Random “web surfing” can also indicate trouble concentrating, a common characteristic associated with depression. Similarly, excessive emailing and chatting may signify a relative lack of strong face-to-face relationships, as people strive to maintain contact either with faraway friends or new people met online. Spending excessive amounts of time on Youtube or playing video games may further indicate social isolation.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 10 percent of adults in the United States currently suffer from clinical depression, a disorder marked by symptoms such as disruptions in eating, sleeping, and concentration patterns, and lack of interest in daily activities. With the vast majority of adults using the internet on a daily basis, it seems logical that asking someone about their web habits could be useful in gaining a fuller understanding of their mental health and wellness.

Internet usage patterns may signify depression –
What Internet Habits Say about Mental Health –

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