Depression and the Internet

Feb 5th, 2010 | By | Category: Personal Columns

On Wednesday the BBC reported on a study linking internet addiction with depression.  A group of British psychologists expressed concern at the internet coming to dominate people’s lives:

Lead author Dr Catriona Morrison said: “The internet now plays a huge part in modern life, but its benefits are accompanied by a darker side.

“While many of us use the internet to pay bills, shop and send e-mails, there is a small subset of the population who find it hard to control how much time they spend online, to the point where it interferes with their daily activities.”

The danger of a simple headline like “’Internet addiction’ linked to depression” is that it masks the complexity of the study, which is much more nuanced in its findings; and that it may confuse, in the minds of those who read the report, the processes of cause and effect.  Spending too much time online may cause depression; spending too much time online may also be an effect of depression.  As one who spends too much in front of a monitor, the internet is a means of breaking down isolation, of staying in touch with the significant world.

I have suffered from depression since I was quite young. Not that I knew what it was in younger years. I would feel almost trapped at times, surrounded by a dark shadow, held by this sort of feeling of melancholy that had no cause or reason. I used to watch the television news, even when I was at primary school, not that I understood most of it, because it was a way of escaping from myself and the world that enclosed me.

Life on the television news seemed to make sense; the world seemed a controlled and ordered place. I didn’t understand the awful things that were happening in Vietnam, but I assumed that the good guys were winning and that everything would be all right in the end, just as it was at the end of the war films. I liked a world in which I didn’t have to think too much, where things were ordered and predictable and where not much was expected of me.

Since those times I have feared being alone and being isolated. I have always liked the feeling of security that comes from knowing that you are surrounded by people going about their daily duties. In my university days I lodged with an uncle and aunt in Kew in west London. At night you could hear the trains on the District and North London lines, you could hear the traffic going along the South Circular, and you could hear the aircraft going into Heathrow airport – there was reassurance in the familiar world continuing as one slept.

Remote places have always held a fear for me. They leave me exposed to my own thoughts and reflections and my first instinct is to try and find familiar things, to try to find sounds and experiences that make me feel secure. I remember being in the Philippines at the beginning of the first Gulf War and nagging at our driver until he lent me his short wave radio and I was able to hear the BBC World Service.

A friend would tell you that I behaved in the same eccentric way when we were in a remote corner of south west Tanzania. I brought a short wave radio, but couldn’t find the BBC; I did, however, find a German station and put that on. I don’t speak a word of German; it was simply to have something that took away the feelings of remoteness and isolation.

The BBC report concludes:

Sophie Corlett, of the mental health charity Mind, said: “Evidence suggests that active pursuits such as exercise and socialising with people face-to-face are among the factors that help us stay in good mental health.

“Although excessive internet use can’t be said to cause mental health problems, if a web addict is substituting meaningful friendships and socialising with virtual contact on the internet, this might have an adverse affect on their mental wellbeing.”

It is hard to imagine anyone would consciously avoid ‘meaningful friendships’ in favour of internet contact, perhaps it’s just that that contact means life is brighter than it might otherwise be.  Causes and effects lead a very tangled existence.

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  1. I think everyone is afraid of remoteness, isolation and a lack of connection. I certainly am. I wouldn’t say I’m depressed or addicted but I relish the ‘company’ that I find through the internet, let alone the convenience. I use it for everything from booking tickets to paying bills. The ‘community’ side of it comes through blogging and social networking. It does cut into my day a bit but what else would i be doing? Watching television? Surely that’s more depressing.

  2. I suspect it would be in the interest of a television broadcaster, faced with falling audiences, to pick out those bits of the report that were most negative.

  3. I agree with the report you quote up to a point. Exercise and real social contact are very important. But newspapers are always letting their hysteria run away with themselves when they rant on about all the dangers of the internet. One day it’s evil, the next it’s our salvation. Like red wine, butter, fat, tea, etc, etc.

  4. Red wine is bad for you? Oh dear, oh dear, I am in trouble.

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