Do Your Internet Habits Indicate Depression?

A study links certain online behavior with depression

25 May 2012

When online, do you frequently switch between applications, use tons of file-sharing software, and send a lot of e-mail and instant messages? If so, you might be depressed, according to a study to be published in an upcoming issue of IEEE Technology and Society Magazine.

The study, performed by researchers at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, in Rolla, analyzed the Internet habits of 216 college students over the course of a month. Prior to the research, the students were screened for signs of depression, with about 30 percent meeting the minimum criteria for the diagnosis. Turns out, that same 30 percent exhibited significantly different Internet usage from the rest of the group, including a lot of file-sharing and chatting. In addition, the depressed segment tended to use higher packets-per-flow applications, like online games.

“High average packets per flow can occur when there is frequent switching between Internet applications,” the researchers write in their paper, “Associating Depressive Symptoms in College Students With Internet Usage Using Real Internet Data.” “Frequent switching may be related with difficulty concentrating, which is also an indicator of depressive symptoms among students.”

I think it’s important to note that the results don’t indicate that an excessive amount of file-sharing, switching between apps, and chatting online actually causes depression; correlation does not imply causation. The research simply shows that those who have depression are likely to use the Internet in certain ways. So why is that important?

According to the researchers, the findings could be used to develop software that would monitor Internet usage on campus networks and notify students whose online behavior shows signs of depression. The thinking is that those students could then be encouraged to seek help.

As interesting and potentially helpful as this might be, there will likely be roadblocks to such software making its way onto college campuses—not the least of which is a concern for privacy. How many college students would be fine with someone monitoring their Internet activity? And even if the software does wind up on campus and students are warned they are showing signs of depression, how many will actually take action and seek therapy?

What do you think of the results of the study? Do you think software could be used to help diagnose depression based on Internet use? Or is this just another example of privacy invasion?


Photo: iStockphoto

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