Internet access can be good for you, says Oxford study. Unless you’re a young woman

Time spent online is bad for our health, isn’t it? It’s certainly a popular viewpoint.

Because browsing at a desk or scrolling on our phones sometimes takes us away from activities considered more healthy or wholesome, such as exercise outdoors or socializing, there is often a perceived link with reduced wellbeing. But is this accurate?

A new global study has found a surprising answer: the internet might be good for you.

Wellbeing indicators

They looked at eight indicators of wellbeing among the individuals, who were aged 15 to 99, including life satisfaction, daily negative and positive experiences and physical wellbeing.

Internet access, they found, was consistently associated with positive wellbeing.

Positive correlation

The researchers applied statistical modelling techniques to the data, taken from the Gallup World Poll, using wellbeing indicators to test the association between internet adoption and wellbeing outcomes.

“We were surprised to find a positive correlation between wellbeing and internet use across the majority of the thousands of models we used for our analysis,” one of the report’s authors said.

The authors say because research in this area often focuses on the Global North, they wanted to assess how technology relates to wellbeing in less-studied parts of the world. So they set out to assess how internet access and use might predict psychological wellbeing on a global level across life stages.

Gender variation

Despite the study’s overall positive findings, however, the link between internet access and positive wellbeing was weaker for young women.

While 84.9% of associations between internet connectivity and wellbeing were positive, almost 5% of the associations were negative – with the most observed among women aged 15-to-24 years old.

The researchers acknowledge this is not a causal relation, but they say that the finding is consistent with previous reports of increased cyberbullying and more negative associations between social media use and depressive symptoms among young women.

Older teen girls are more likely than boys of any age to have faced cyberbullying | Pew Research Center

A complex issue

Many studies have shown social media use to be associated with greater depressive symptoms, particularly among young women.

A systematic review of research into the topic found “higher levels of social media usage were connected with worse mental health outcomes, and higher levels of social media use were associated with an increased risk of internalizing and externalizing difficulties among adolescents, especially females”.

The same report also noted that the effects of social media on mental health are complex, as “different goals are served by different behaviours and different outcomes are produced by distinct patterns of use”.

Ultimately, social media use offers both benefits and risks to the health of young people, it says.

Technology and mental health

Mental health challenges are the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people, and there have been calls for more research on the relationship between technology and mental health.

As one of the Oxford report’s authors says: “We hope our findings bring some greater context to the screen time debate. However, further work is still needed in this important area.”

This article was originally published in the World Economic Forum.

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