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Internet Use Linked to Depression

By Leslie Davis

For an increasing number of people, the Internet is becoming more of a social outlet than the real world. Online gaming, shopping, chatting and social networking sites such as Facebook are slowly replacing in-person interactions with others – often to the detriment of one's health.

A new study by psychologists at Leeds University in England found that people who spend a lot of time online are more likely to show signs of depression.

"This study reinforces the public speculation that over-engaging in websites that serve to replace normal social function might be linked to psychological disorders like depression and addiction," the study's lead author, Catriona Morrison, wrote in the journal Psychopathology. "This type of addictive surfing can have a serious impact on mental health."

Moderate to severe depression is more likely to occur among people who are addicted to the Internet. Internet addiction is defined as excessive computer use that interferes with daily life. Internet addicts spend more time browsing pornographic websites, online gaming sites and online communities, and are more likely to give up actual socializing to spend time online.

What the researchers were unable to determine was how Internet use and depression interact.

"Excessive Internet use is associated with depression, but what we don't know is which comes first -- are depressed people drawn to the Internet or does the Internet cause depression?," Morrison said.

What is known is that an increasing number of people are spending more time online and neglecting their real-world relationships. A study by Stanford University found that only two to five hours of Internet use per week causes a person to lose contact with their real world social environment. For those spending more than 10 hours per week online, up to 15 percent reported a decrease in social activities.

Internet users spend much less time talking on the phone to family and friends and engaging in in-person activities. This loss of connection with others and increased face-time with a glowing screen are likely to make an increasing number of people depressed.

An Increasing Reliance on the Internet

The Internet is quickly becoming a substitute for many activities that previously were done outside of the home and that often required human interaction. The Stanford study found that the average Internet user engages in at least five types of distinct activities on the Web: a combination of different types of information searches, entertainment and games, and some online shopping.

The most common Internet activity is e-mailing. About 90 percent of all Internet users use e-mail, which has become a primary method of interacting with friends and family. This method of communication is replacing phone calls and letters, and often makes correspondence less personal.

The Internet has also become a primary method of shopping, with millions of items available at the click of a button. People spend less time shopping in stores and more time mindlessly browsing the Internet. This type of behavior can also lead to problems with compulsive spending.

Internet use is also invading the home. People who previously left work at the office are now spending more time working from home, giving them less time with their families and friends. Even for people who are not addicted to the Internet, it may be hard to resist the temptation to check work e-mail or finish a project, even after returning home for the night.

While all of these activities can be done in the comfort of one's own home and are often seen as more convenient, the decreased interaction with other people can ultimately have an effect on one's mental health.

"What is clear is that for a small subset of people, excessive use of the Internet could be a warning signal for depressive tendencies," Morrison said.

Recognizing Depression

People who spend excessive amounts of time online may not even realize how much they are affected by a lack of social interaction, and the symptoms of depression may sneak up on them. For people who do find themselves online more frequently, it may be useful to know these signs of depression from the National Institute of Mental Health:

  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Decreased energy and fatigue
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness or helplessness
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  • Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness or excessive sleeping
  • Irritability and restlessness
  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once found pleasurable
  • Overeating or appetite loss
  • Persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps or digestive problems
  • Persistent sad, anxious or "empty" feelings
  • Thoughts of suicide or suicide attempts

Depression will not go away on its own, but it is treatable. If the signs of depression start showing up, the first thing excessive Internet users should do is to cut back on the amount of time they spend online and reenter the real world. The increased social interaction and outdoor activity may be enough to decrease the depressive symptoms.

More severe depression may require treatment, either through a therapist who specializes in depression or a residential treatment center for depression. Depression treatment often requires the use of anti-depressants to reduce the symptoms and help stabilize a person's mood. Professional treatment can also address a person's Internet addiction and any associated issues.

Use of the Internet is only going to become more pervasive as it becomes a necessary part of most people's lives. Learning how to balance the online world with the real one will be important to maintaining personal relationships and keeping depression at bay.


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