Home Internet Internet use linked to with higher well-being, study of 2.4 million people finds

Internet use linked to with higher well-being, study of 2.4 million people finds

A recent study published in the journal Technology, Mind, and Behavior has revealed a global snapshot of how internet access and use influence psychological well-being. Analyzing data from over 2.4 million individuals across 168 countries, the researchers found that internet access and use were consistently associated with higher levels of life satisfaction, positive experiences, and social well-being.

The rapid adoption of internet-enabled technologies has sparked widespread debate about their effects on psychological well-being. Social scientists have shifted their focus from older technologies, like television, to modern digital platforms and devices. Major technology firms have responded to concerns by introducing digital well-being tools that help users monitor their screen time.

Despite these efforts, there remains a lack of clear understanding about the relationship between internet use and well-being. The new study aimed to fill that gap by examining the global impact of internet access on various aspects of well-being.

“Technology and how its rapid change affect people and societies are both fascinating topics in and of themselves but have also raised alarm. Behavioural scientists should be able to shed some light on whether our worries are well calibrated or not and how we should think about these issues,” said study author Matti Vuorre, an assistant professor at Tilburg University.

“While it is a public question, it’s also a private one: I’m sure many of us have stopped at one point or another to think about how new tools might change how we think and feel and if the ways we use them could be improved. Beyond that it is also a methodologically fascinating question to ponder because of so many associated unknowns.”

For their study, the researchers utilized data from the Gallup World Poll, a continuous annual survey representing each country’s civilian, non-institutionalized adult population. The survey involved approximately 1,000 individuals from each of 168 countries, conducted via one-hour interviews either face-to-face or over the phone, translated into major conversational languages.

The study focused on data collected from 2006 to 2021, comprising a total sample size of 2,414,294 individuals, 53.1% of whom were female, with an age range interquartile of 26-54. Internet access was measured using questions about home internet access (2006-2015) and overall internet access through any device (2016-2021). Mobile internet access and recent internet use were also queried from 2015-2021.

Well-being was assessed using eight indicators: life satisfaction, negative and positive daily experiences, two indices of social well-being, physical well-being, community well-being, and experiences of purpose. Life satisfaction was measured with a self-assessment scale, while daily experiences were recorded through yes/no questions about recent emotions and activities. Social well-being was proxied through questions about social support and relationships. Additional indicators from the Gallup-Sharecare Global Well-Being Index included measures of purpose, community, physical, and social well-being.

The researchers found consistent positive associations between internet access and well-being across all indicators. The results were remarkably consistent across different countries and demographic groups, suggesting that the benefits of internet access are widespread.

“If you take a step back from the focused but usually not too representative studies of this topic and look at well-being of people offline and online, we find using this large multinational sample that individuals online report greater well-being than those who don’t have access or don’t actively use the internet,” Vuorre told PsyPost.

“We addressed the ‘simple’ question: Do individuals who actively use or have (mobile) internet access report different levels of well-being than those who don’t have access or use the internet. Even though the question appears simple, there are many many different ways to answer it from a technical and statistical point of view.”

“I was surprised that across thousands of such different statistical specifications of this question, the vast majority indicated that internet users report feeling better than non-internet users,” Vuorre said. “Usually, these changes to the exact way a question is posed statistically make more of a difference.”

Interestingly, the study did identify a notable exception to these positive trends. Young women, aged 15 to 24, reported lower levels of community well-being with increased internet use. This finding is consistent with previous research linking social media use to negative mental health outcomes, such as increased anxiety and depression. The study suggests that while the internet can offer numerous benefits, it may also have adverse effects on certain demographic groups, particularly in terms of community and social well-being.

While the study provides valuable insights, it is not without limitations. Firstly, it relies on self-reported data, which can be biased or inaccurate. Future studies should incorporate objective measures of internet use, such as data from apps that track screen time.

Secondly, the study is cross-sectional, meaning it captures data at a single point in time, rather than tracking changes over time. Longitudinal studies that follow individuals over extended periods would provide a clearer picture of how internet use affects well-being.

Importantly, the study primarily examines correlations, not causation. While the associations between internet access and well-being are positive, it is unclear whether internet use directly improves well-being or if other factors are at play.

“We did not ask a question of causality: For example, whether Eric who today uses the internet daily would feel better if he stopped using the internet altogether tomorrow’ was outside what we wanted to analyse or could with these data,” Vuorre noted.

Nina Di Cara, a senior research associate at the University of Bristol, who was not involved in the study, told the Science Media Centre: “The study uses a multiverse analysis which allows researchers to establish whether specifying the variables used in the analysis in a slightly different way would change the results. The consistency in the results found in the multiverse analysis also gives confidence that the positive effect they found between well-being and internet use is robust.”

“Overall the study is important because it provides robust evidence for the global picture of the relationship between access to the internet and psychological well-being. However, the evidence we need to make meaningful interventions and policy recommendations requires longitudinal research, triangulation across different methods, and a better understanding of what type of internet use is works for different people, and when.”

Looking forward, Vuorre and his colleagues hope to develop tools and methods to better understand how technology impacts people.

“It’s important to develop sustainable technical/methodological and conceptual tools to address questions of how tech and other human activities impact people in a way that findings from the past can best inform future studies and new technologies,” Vuorre explained. “Particularly I’d like to see large scale transparent and ethical data sharing between academic scholars and societal stakeholders like companies who hold most of the data behind lock and key.”

“Although concerns (and hopes!) over new technology and media are prevalent, it’s important to keep in mind that the science lags behind and that risks/benefits should be carefully balanced in any decisions in this space.”

The study, “A Multiverse Analysis of the Associations Between Internet Use and Well-Being,” was authored by by Matti Vuorre and Andrew K. Przybylski.

 

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