Let's Get This Straight: Sad and lonely in cyberspace?

Why the new Net-depression study is something to get bummed about.

Published September 3, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

"Sad, Lonely World Discovered in Cyberspace": The front-page headline in Sunday's New York Times conjured an image of intrepid explorers trekking to the edge of a precipice to win a precious glimpse of some remote tribe. It's a romantic, attention-getting picture, which is no doubt what attracted Times editors to the wording. But -- as so often is the case with media portraits of Net culture -- the truth is far more mundane.

The accompanying article reports the results of a study of about 160 people in Pittsburgh conducted by a team of social scientists from Carnegie Mellon University. The researchers found people who'd never been online before, put computers in their homes, tracked their Net use and then used psychological questionnaires to discover how their online sojourns affected their psychological well-being. The project -- called HomeNet -- found some small but, its creators insist, statistically significant connection between hours spent online and participants' reported feelings of loneliness and depression.

In other words: The Net bums you out!

Unlike the notorious "cyberporn" study that emerged from Carnegie Mellon in 1995 only to have its trustworthiness and methodology blasted to bits by online critics, the HomeNet study -- which will appear this week in the American Psychologist (there's a draft online at the HomeNet site) -- isn't riddled with gaping holes, massive fallacies and crafty distortions. But before we all conclude that the Internet is hazardous to our mental health, it's worth pondering some of the many questions about the HomeNet study that weren't raised in the initial Times coverage -- and that don't seem to be getting heard as that article echoes through the mediasphere thanks to CNN, AP, the BBC and others.

First of all, the statistically significant changes the researchers report are quite small -- like a 1 percent increase on the depression scale for people who spend an hour a week online. (We're not talking about clinical-level, fire-up-the-Prozac style depression here.) The study attempts to find subtle gradations on the basis of the kind of "How are you feeling today on a scale of one to five?" quizzes that psychologists like to use to measure people's moods -- and anyone who's ever taken one of those tests knows it's hardly an exact science. The researchers only tested people twice, at the start and the end of the two-year study -- which doesn't provide a very wide set of data points to offset the impact of other factors (time of year, state of the economy, random personal crises). Teenagers, unsurprisingly, tended to spend more time online and also show a greater rate of loneliness and depression -- and that could easily account for the correlation the researchers found between increased Net use and dampened moods.

Beyond these statistical issues, there's a deeper problem with the study's basic setup. The researchers chose to limit their subjects to people who hadn't been online before, because they wanted to perform a "before and after" kind of study that would help them isolate the specific effect of Net use on individual psyches. So the participants in the study weren't people who simply chose to get online because they had some motivation to do so; they were people who got free computers and Internet access so they could be studied.

It's tough to know exactly what direction that would skew the study toward -- but easy to see that there's an unnatural premise at the heart of the research. One obvious problem is that the researchers have no idea whether their subjects got bummed out because of what they encountered on the Net, or simply because they wound up sitting in front of a computer monitor rather than working in their gardens or playing ball. Is the increase in "loneliness and depression" caused by the Internet itself or simply by computer use, regardless of whether the modem's on? The study can't say.

By far the biggest flaw in the HomeNet research, however, is the way it lumps all Internet usage into one big heap. Using the Net to organize a charity drive or a political campaign is a different experience from using it to stare at pornography (as if anyone would do the latter with a bunch of psychologists watching). Building your own Web site is different from pounding on a search engine hunting down some obscure fact. There is no uniform "Internet experience," and you can't draw conclusions about how time on the Net affects people's psyches until you know what people are doing with that time.

The researchers have suggested one explanation for their results: In spending more time on the Net, people are trading the "strong" social bonds of face-to-face friendships and relationships for the "weak" ties of the disembodied online realm -- and that may ultimately leave them feeling more isolated. There's some good sense in that observation. But the "weakness" of online ties is a relative matter: The report also notes that going online may help broaden the social support network for people who live in more isolated locales than, say, Pittsburgh.

Much of the utopian rhetoric about online community emerged from spaces like the Well and Echo -- communities that have geographical centers (the Well in the Bay Area, Echo in New York) and that don't permit anonymity. The long-term denizens of such communities will snort with derision at the idea that the friendships and relationships they've built there are any less "real" or valuable than those they've built offline. (My own critique of the HomeNet study draws from the spirited discussions of it this week on the Well.)

But such happy experiences can't easily be duplicated in forums and online environments that have rapidly shifting populations, easy access to anonymity and no geographical center of gravity. Without those characteristics that knit an online space into the fabric of offline life, the online "community" can readily descend into flame-throwing anarchy and alienating mind games. Depressing? You bet.

As the Internet grows, we will be faced with a complex choice between two visions of the new communications medium: Is it going to evolve into the vast postmodern playground of shifting identity that scholars like Sherry Turkle have mapped -- a no-place where everyone can be whatever they want, and nobody means anything to anyone else? Or is it going to emerge as an extension of our real-world lives, overcoming barriers of time and distance but not obliterating our feelings of identity, connection and responsibility toward one another?

The HomeNet researchers say they're moving forward with follow-up studies. Here's a tip for them: Don't give headline writers an excuse to translate minute percentage deviations in a tiny, unscientific sample population into exciting discoveries of whole "worlds" of emotional distress. Don't just tally the hours people spend on the Net, but track where they go and what they do with their time. Look at the differences between people who frequent anonymous chat rooms and those who join real communities. Then, and only then, ask them if they're happy.

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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