No harm in extended internet use

Heavy Internet use may be therapeutic for those people facing social isolation and loneliness, says a University of Alberta study–dispelling the belief that high computer usage leads to psychological problems.

A team of researchers, lead by graduate student Mary Modayil, challenged the notion that heavy Internet use increases levels of depression for its users. The research was recently published in the journal Cyberpsychology and Behavior.

Modayil and her team, made up of Dr. Gus Thompson and Dr. Doug Wilson from Public Health Sciences and Dr. Stanley Varnhagen from the Faculty of Extension, tested the widespread belief and the results of a previous studies that found being online for long periods results in greater social isolation.

“To me, anecdotal evidence suggested otherwise, which was a good reason to do the study,” said Modayil.

During the summer of 2000, Modayil, then a master’s student in the Department of Public Health Sciences, questioned online users in the Edmonton area about their psychological well-being. This region consistently collects health information through government-mandated questionnaires which gave the research team a comparison group in the general population to use against the Internet sample.

In almost all variables she found that Internet users on average scored more negatively than the regular community. However, for each of the psychological items, she also asked when the Internet users first experienced their symptoms and “found that onset of psychological symptoms clearly preceded Internet use,” at a range of five to 22 years. The research also showed that the Internet group reported a greater tendency toward membership in voluntary organizations and a higher level of helping others.

Those findings suggest that Internet use is possibly supportive and therapeutic and despite their other difficulties, these individuals are maintaining some form of social connectedness away from the computer, said Modayil.

“It is quite conceivable that socially awkward individuals, who nonetheless crave social interaction, would gravitate to a medium that allows for myriad social interactions of varying degrees of intimacy, but with the safety accorded by the controllable anonymity of electronic contact,” said the researchers in the paper.

Modayil is now working towards her doctorate in Epidemiology at the University of South Carolina.

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Phoebe Dey EurekAlert!

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