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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 Cheer up Josh at Or watch him on CNNfn's Digital Jam, 7:30 p.m. E.T. on Wednesdays.

A New Study Found...
--More depression

An hour a week online was associated with a 1% rise on a depression scale
--More loneliness
Four-tenths of 1%, to be exact
--Loss of friends
2.7 people over two years

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: September 14, 1998

Now Say It Like You Mean It
The Politics Of Yuck
Topic A
News, Newser, Newsest
The Tonic Of Peace
Lost Leaders
Bummed Like Me
A Senator and Old Friend Delivers a Stern Sermon
Holding Their Own
Can Tony Williams Save D.C.?

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