The Internet Might Actually Be Good for Us After All

Scrolling your phone sounds like the opposite of self-care, but new research suggests that internet use and access actually boost one’s happiness. 

In a massive new study published in the journal Technology, Mind, and Behavior, researchers examined what kind of effect the internet has on psychological well-being. They found that people who had access to the internet scored 8% higher on well-being measures than those who lacked web access. The effect was similar to the benefit associated with taking a walk in nature. 

The study looked at eight well-being outcomes: life satisfaction; daily negative and positive experiences; two measures of social well-being; physical well-being; community well-being; and experiences of purpose.

They then used a series of multiverse analyses to determine how these measures differed between individuals who had access to and used the internet regularly and those who didn’t. The data spanned 15 years, from 2006 to 2021 and included more than 2.4 million people in 168 countries. The authors intentionally sought out a more global perspective on internet use than previous research had offered.

“While the Internet is global, the study of it is not,” said Andrew Przybylski, one of the study’s authors, in a press briefing on May 9. “More than 90% of data sets come from a handful of English-speaking countries” that are mostly in the global north, he said.

How can the internet possibly be good for us?

The study doesn’t provide specific answers about why going online could make us happier, but other research has found that the internet can be a source of social support and community for people living with physical disabilities, create a sense of belonging among adolescents and spur a reduction in depression among older adults.  

The internet is increasingly linked with health when it comes to treatment, too — particularly for mental health. One study published by the American Medical Association found that 88% of mental health treatment facilities offered telehealth services in September 2022 compared with 39.4% of facilities in April 2019.

Because the internet touches so many parts of our lives, organizations like the Federal Communications Commission and SAMHSA have even called broadband a “super-determinant” of health because of its influence on education, employment and health care access.

“The delivery of clinical services only contributes 20% to health outcomes. 40% is what we call socioeconomic status,” Carole Myers, a professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville who studies health care access and disparities, told CNET. “It’s things like your income level, your education level and the resources that are available in your community.” 

“Broadband access is really important for telehealth,” Myers said, “but it’s important for economic development, for attracting businesses — it’s important for education. And in turn those things drive health.” 

Another recent study, from the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that a 10% increase in the proportion of county residents with access to broadband internet leads to a 1.01% reduction in the number of suicides in a county, “as well as improvements in self-reported mental and physical health.”

There are still reasons to be cautious about internet use

Even though this new study found that the internet makes most of us happier, there was one notable exception. Among women between the ages of 15 and 24, there was a negative association between internet use and reports of community well-being. 

The authors noted that this is “consistent with previous reports of increased cyberbullying and more negative associations between social media use and depressive symptoms among young women.” 

A report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 57% of teen girls reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless in 2021. Another study found that “selfie posting on social media is harmful in terms of young women’s mood and self-image.”

Tips for a healthier life online

There are several steps you can take to minimize these harmful sides of internet life, including unplugging from social media periodically. Research has found that digital detoxes can improve symptoms of depression, among other mental health benefits. Another study conducted on college students who underwent social media detoxes between one to seven days found that most students reported positive changes in mood, better productivity, improved sleep and reduced anxiety.

It doesn’t have to be as severe as a weeklong detox, either. Taking periodic breaks from your phone throughout the day can add up to bigger changes, like improved sleep quality. CNET writer Jessica Fierro also suggests taking advantage of the Focus modes on your iPhone or Android phone.

The internet has become vital to our work, health and social lives, and, shockingly, it even makes us happier. But like most things in life, it’s still best when done in moderation. 

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