Bummed Like Me
Can spending time on the Internet really make you lonely and
depressed? Who cares?
By Joshua Quittner
I am too depressed to get out of bed. Darkly, I reach down to
the pile of debris on the floor and root through empty ice-cream
containers, half-empty cigarette cartons and thick Windows 98
self-help books to find what I'm looking for: that new Carnegie
Mellon University study suggesting that using the Internet can
cause isolation, loneliness and depression. Whatever, I sigh,
and roll over for another nap. But later, when I wake up and go
online, I can't seem to shake the thing. The researchers purport
to have measured, over the course of two years, the deleterious
effects of a mere hour a week of Net use. They reported an
average increase of 1% on a depression scale, four-tenths of a
percent on a loneliness scale and a loss of 2.7 members of the
user's social group. I check into the WELL, one of the oldest
and therefore most depressing of the so-called online
"communities," and the usual gang is tearing up the report like
junkyard dogs with a rag doll.
WELLites, who are among the crankiest people I've ever not met,
are especially critical of the methodology, which was limited to
169 newbies living in Pittsburgh. The WELL snobs want to know if
maybe there isn't a deeper correlation between living in
Pittsburgh and depression. Jeers abound. Some wag posts
something he found elsewhere online: a list of the Top 10
Reasons Why the Internet Makes You Depressed. "Reason No. 1: She
was *really* a 14-year-old boy from Sheboygan, Wisconsin!" Ha
ha--way to steal someone else's idea and get credit for it. Did
I mention that I spend a lot of time online?
I e-mail my wife. "Greater use of the Internet was associated
with subsequent declines in family communication," I note,
quoting from the study. "Whatever," she replies in an e-mail
much, much later.
Not that I care anymore what she thinks. But I am starting to
wonder. If an hour a week is too much, what's safe? Afraid to
directly confront Sara Kiesler, one of the authors, I review her
printed remarks on the university's website, where she artfully
dodges the question. "Many people do things 'too much,'" she
points out. "Eating quarts of ice cream at night, smoking three
packs a day and sitting at the computer 10 hours at a time." I
wait in vain for her to get to the too-much part. Later I screw
up my courage and phone Donna Hoffman, a professor at Vanderbilt
University who has conducted more studies of online usage than
anyone else I know. "Color me baffled," she says. Hoffman
believes the report is critically flawed. For starters, there
was no control group--composed of, say, people outside
Pittsburgh. Teenagers were the largest group in the sample, and
we all know about their mental health. Even the researchers
admitted that their results could not be "generalized," meaning
you can't extrapolate to the whole population.
By the way, I ask Hoffman, how much are you online? "A lot of
the time," she says. "When I am awake." I press her to be more
specific. "Easily more than 10 hours a week," she admits, adding
quickly that "far from being depressed, I am a happy person."
This perks me up. Perhaps I will leave the house today after
all. After one more quart of ice cream.
Find the sites mentioned in this column at time.com/personal.
Cheer up Josh at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or watch him on CNNfn's Digital
Jam, 7:30 p.m. E.T. on Wednesdays.
A New Study Found...An hour a week online was associated with a 1% rise on a depression scale
Four-tenths of 1%, to be exact
--Loss of friends
2.7 people over two years