Online Activity Can Signal Depression, Study Says

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Online activity -- the amount and type -- can reflect whether or not you are depressed, according to a new study by researchers from the Missouri University of Science and Technology.

Want to know if you qualify for a trip to the counselor's office? The New York Times has published results from the study.

The researchers had 216 college students fill out a questionnaire that would determine if they were depressed or not, then they examined how they spent their time online. They correlated the two metrics and came up with several findings.

They found that the more a participant's score on the survey indicated depression, the more the person's Internet usage included sharing files like movies and music.

They also found participants with depressive symptoms tended to engage in very high e-mail usage.

"This perhaps was to be expected: research by the psychologists Janet Morahan-Martin and Phyllis Schumacher has shown that frequent checking of e-mail may relate to high levels of anxiety, which itself correlates with depressive symptoms," the Times report says.

The researchers also saw that the depressed students in their study tended to exhibit high "flow duration entropy." They said that "often occurs when there is frequent switching among Internet applications like e-mail, chat rooms, and games. This may indicate difficulty concentrating. This finding, too, is consistent with the psychological literature: according to the National Institute of Mental Health, difficulty concentrating is also a sign of depressive symptoms among students."

They also said that higher amounts of video watching, gaming, and chatting correlated with depression.

So what’s all this really mean?

Anyone who's ever taken a course in statistics knows designing a valid research study -- meaning, one that’s not biased, flawed, or otherwise illogical in the conclusions it draws -- is tricky; innumerable variables can influence how results shake out, not to mention the inferences researchers draw from them.

So let's get this straight -- high e-mail usage indicates depression? Frequent switching between applications is cause for concern?

If those conclusions are accurate, I should certainly be concerned about my mental well-being, as should anyone who’s even moderately tech literate or employed and using the Internet to do work, for that matter.

And college students who watch a lot of videos and spend too much time gaming and chatting is abnormal?

There are some obvious problems here.

For one thing, the researchers aren't psychologists -- one is an assistant professor of computer science and the other is a software development engineer. You'd think a psych background would be a requirement for publishing a study on the subject of depression.

Second, there very may well be some bias involved in their conclusions.

"We hope to use our findings to develop a software application that could be installed on home computers and mobile devices. It would monitor your Internet usage and alert you when your usage patterns might signal symptoms of depression," they assert.

Oh, brother. I'll agree that anxiety and difficulty concentrating are problematic in today's fast-paced economy -- for college students, working professionals, depressed people and those who are perfectly well adjusted.

So how about an application that reduces anxiety and difficulty concentrating instead of yet another distracting monitoring tool that most likely would need maintenance?

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