May 25, 2024

Spending time online is often portrayed as something to be avoided, but research suggests that internet use is associated with greater well-being in people around the world.

The potential impact on well-being of the Internet, and social media in particular, has become a matter of intense debate. “Our analysis is the first to test whether internet access, mobile internet access and regular use of the internet are related to well-being at a global level,” said Prof Andrew Przybylski, from the University of Oxford, who co-authored the work. said.

Przybylski said previous findings were limited by poorly conducted studies, a focus on North America and Europe and research that looked primarily at concerns about such technology, particularly in relation to young people.

“It would be really good to be able to direct advice and tools and regulations to protect young people in particular, but that evidence simply doesn’t exist in a way that would be useful for those purposes,” he said.

Published in the journal Technology, Mind and Behaviour, the study describes how Przybylski and Dr Matti Vuorre, from the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands, analyzed data collected by interviewing around 1,000 people each year from 168 countries as part of the Gallup World Poll.

Participants were asked about their Internet access and use as well as eight different measures of well-being, such as life satisfaction, social life, purpose in life and feelings of community well-being.

The team analyzed data from 2006 to 2021, which includes approximately 2.4 million participants aged 15 and over.

The researchers used more than 33,000 statistical models, which allowed them to examine various possible associations while taking into account factors that might influence them, such as income, education, health problems and relationship status.

The results show that internet access, mobile internet access and use generally predicted higher measures of the different aspects of well-being, with 84.9% of associations between internet connection and well-being positive, 0.4% negative and 14.7% not statistically significant.

The study could not prove cause and effect, but the team found that measures of life satisfaction were 8.5% higher for those who had Internet access.

The study also did not look at the length of time people spent using the Internet or what they used it for, while some factors that may explain associations may not have been taken into account.

Przybylski said it is important that policy on technology is evidence-based and that the impact of any interventions is tracked.

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“If we want to make the online world safer for young people, we simply can’t go down in flames with strong preconceived notions and sort of one-size-fits-all solutions. We really need to make sure that we are sensitive to having our minds changed by data,” he said.

Dr Shweta Singh, an assistant professor of information systems and management at the University of Warwick, who was not involved in the study, said that safe internet or harmless social media do not yet exist.

“As much as I like to agree with these findings and really wish that their totality is true, unfortunately there is counter-evidence and arguments that suggest that this is not necessarily the case,” she said, noting reports that cases of “sex dumping” in Canada have reached a new high, with teenage boys in particular being affected.

Prof Simeon Yates, from the University of Liverpool, said there was a lot of focus on online harm, but there were also benefits, although there was more nuance to both than the latest study could capture.

“Just because people cite a higher level of well-being doesn’t mean that no negative things happen to them online,” he said.

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