Does internet use boost psychological well-being?

In a recent study published in Technology, Mind, and Behavior, researchers investigated whether internet access and use can predict eight outcomes related to well-being.

Their results suggest that having access to and using the internet significantly predicts higher psychological well-being, with more than 96% of cases showing improved well-being associated with higher internet access and use.

Study: A Multiverse Analysis of the Associations Between Internet Use and Well-Being. Image Credit: Ground Picture / ShutterstockStudy: A Multiverse Analysis of the Associations Between Internet Use and Well-Being. Image Credit: Ground Picture / Shutterstock

Background

As internet-enabled platforms and technologies become increasingly available and widely used, there are concerns that they may affect people's psychological functioning and well-being. This represents a shift in focus from television-based technology and video games to handheld digital devices and online platforms.

Concurrently, technology firms have developed tools to promote digital well-being, allowing users to track how long they have been using particular technologies or platforms. Policymakers and medical professionals are also formulating regulations to protect users' well-being on Internet platforms.

However, evidence regarding fundamental relationships between the adoption and use of internet technologies and user well-being is limited, with many studies showing contradictory findings.

The least studied areas are those where access has expanded fastest in recent decades, and global trends are not well understood. Existing studies have also focused primarily on the effects of the internet on younger individuals without considering impacts across the course of one's life.

About the study

In this study, researchers aimed to estimate how internet access, both mobile and otherwise, and active internet use predicts indicators of psychological well-being, addressing the global scope of the issue.

They utilized a cross-sectional study design including 2,414,294 participants across 168 nations, using Gallup World Poll data collected between 2006 and 2021.

Internet access was estimated using respondent answers to questions related to whether their home had internet access or if they had access to the internet in any form, either through a computer, mobile phone, or other devices.

Internet use was estimated by asking whether the respondent's mobile phone could be used for internet access and whether they had used the internet on any device in the preceding seven days.

The eight indicators they considered included overall life satisfaction, self-reports of daily positive (being treated with respect, laughing, having new experiences) and negative (anger, stress, sadness, worry, pain) experiences, experiences of purpose (liking what they did), and indices measuring physical well-being, social well-being, and community well-being.

The data was analyzed using multiverse analysis, which involved fitting similar models to potentially distinct data subgroups (sex and age group) with potentially distinct covariates, outcomes, and predictors. Covariates included respondent income, educational attainment, work, relationship status, ability to meet basic food and shelter needs, and self-reported health problems.

Findings

Findings revealed consistently positive associations between internet access or use and well-being indicators, including life satisfaction, positive experiences, social life satisfaction, and physical well-being. Individuals with internet access reported slightly higher life satisfaction and positive experiences and lower negative experiences than those without access.

Moreover, active internet users exhibited increased well-being across several metrics, with a slight decrease in negative experiences. Mobile phone internet access also predicted moderate increases in well-being. Despite small effect sizes, these differences were significant across countries and demographic groups.

"We were surprised to find a positive correlation between well-being and internet use across the majority of the thousands of models we used for our analysis," said Dr. Vuorre, one of the study's authors, when discussing the findings.

Multiverse analysis confirmed the robustness of these associations, with internet access or use consistently linked to higher well-being in 96.4% of cases. The positive relationships persisted after adjusting for various covariates, suggesting potential causal relations between internet access or use and well-being.

However, negative associations were found between community well-being and internet adoption among young active users, indicating nuanced effects across different demographics and covariate specifications.

Conclusions

The study delves into the impact of internet access and use on psychological well-being globally. It confirms previously published mixed findings by demonstrating a consistent positive association between internet adoption and various well-being indicators across diverse demographics and countries.

Notably, the study highlights the need to consider different demographic groups and model decisions when analyzing these associations, emphasizing the complexity of the relationship.

However, the study acknowledges limitations. It primarily relies on between-person data, which may overlook nuanced individual experiences and causal pathways.

Additionally, the self-reported nature of technology engagement measures introduces potential biases. Despite attempts to adjust for confounding variables, the study's conclusions are tempered by the lack of robust longitudinal data and standardized measures of well-being.

To address these limitations, future research should prioritize large-scale longitudinal studies with validated measures of well-being and accurate technology engagement data. By integrating comprehensive datasets and rigorous statistical approaches, researchers can advance our understanding of the causal effects of internet technologies on individuals' lives.

"We hope our findings bring some greater context to the screentime debate; however, further work is still needed in this important area. We urge platform providers to share their detailed data on user behavior with social scientists working in this field for transparent and independent scientific inquiry to enable a more comprehensive understanding of internet technologies in our daily lives," said Dr. Przybylski regarding the study's implications.

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Priyanjana Pramanik

Written by

Priyanjana Pramanik

Priyanjana Pramanik is a writer based in Kolkata, India, with an academic background in Wildlife Biology and economics. She has experience in teaching, science writing, and mangrove ecology. Priyanjana holds Masters in Wildlife Biology and Conservation (National Centre of Biological Sciences, 2022) and Economics (Tufts University, 2018). In between master's degrees, she was a researcher in the field of public health policy, focusing on improving maternal and child health outcomes in South Asia. She is passionate about science communication and enabling biodiversity to thrive alongside people. The fieldwork for her second master's was in the mangrove forests of Eastern India, where she studied the complex relationships between humans, mangrove fauna, and seedling growth.

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