A Comment on a Nonnews Article
Now the Internet causes depression?
Get a brain and give me a break.

     COMMENT:  What is wrong with the article below?  There is a link to
     the alleged "study" said to be entitled "Homenet".
     The title of the article is not actually given.

     This is not the title of any study, but a collection of research papers
     from CMU that indicate nothing to support the contention presented
     here.  On Sun, Aug. 30 around 17:04:45 EDT 1998 I actually read *every*
     paper at this site.  The tenor of every article here is that email
     dominates Internet usage in many ways and that it serves well in
     maintaining and establishing and maintaining supportive interpersonal

     Nowhere was a "Sad, Lonely World of Cyberspace" found.  Where these
     quotes in the article below actually come from is entirely unclear.
     If some of them are by word of mouth, they are vague, pointless and
     even irrelevent.

     The "reasoning" below, irrespective of whatever data actually exist,
     manages to violate well known (to mathematicians) facts in the
     area of statistics:

     1) Correlation does *not* imply causality.

     2) The statistics of a population are just that: there is no reason
        whatsoever to expect that any individual's characterstics measured
        by parameters will have anything to do with the norms of those
        parameters.  An individual's characteristics cannot be predicted
        by the norms of characteristics.  If this were not true, there
        would be no point to statistics at all.  This happens to be the
        most rampant of all common abuses of statistical theory.

     Many books have been written explaining both of these facts, but
     apparently no one reads them.

     From the article, first paragraph:

     "..., researchers at Carnegie Mellon
     University have found that people who spend even a few hours a week
     online experience higher levels of depression and loneliness than
     they would have if they used the computer network less frequently."

     Nonsense - no such study can be done by current limitations on
     genetic engineering and laws concerning human experimentation.

     No scientist in his or her right mind could ever make such an
     assertion.  This would hardly be the first time that a media person
     has twisted and perverted a genuine scientific conclusion to
     a misstatement.  The instances of that could fill a vast library.

     Assumptions that are simply accepted and which might be intelligently
     questioned are glossed over in the usual ovine manner, e.g,
     Why on earth *should* one have a "public policy" regarding the
     Internet?  What exactly is a "public policy" other than yet another
     meaningless or euphemistic phrase in manipulative bureacratese.

     This article is a prime example of ignorant, manipulative, and sloppy
     journalism that is all too common.  Writers writing to write are the
     same as people who talk to hear themselves talk; the result:
     completely dismissable nonsense.

     The point of articles like this is seemingly to induce groundless
     fear and anxiety over aspects of everyday life, or to create controversy
     where none exists.  Try reading "The Fountainhead" for why this is
     done.  There are enough real ones without having to manufacture more.

     I wonder if anybody has done a "study" on the "causal" link between
     reading newspapers with articles like this and depression.

The Article in question:
Back to Comment

      August 30, 1998
           Researchers Find Sad, Lonely World in Cyberspace

     In the first concentrated study of the social and psychological
     effects of Internet use at home, researchers at Carnegie Mellon
     University have found that people who spend even a few hours a week
     online experience higher levels of depression and loneliness than
     they would have if they used the computer network less frequently.
     Those participants who were lonelier and more depressed at the
     start of the two-year study, as determined by a standard
     questionnaire administered to all the subjects, were not more
     likely to use the Internet. Instead, Internet use itself appeared
     to cause a decline in psychological well-being, the researchers
     New questions on public policy on the Internet.
     The results of the $1.5 million project ran completely contrary to
     expectations of the social scientists who designed it and to many
     of the organizations that financed the study. These included
     technology companies like Intel Corp., Hewlett Packard, AT&T
     Research and Apple Computer, as well as the National Science
     "We were shocked by the findings, because they are counterintuitive
     to what we know about how socially the Internet is being used,"
     said Robert Kraut, a social psychology professor at Carnegie
     Mellon's Human Computer Interaction Institute. "We are not talking
     here about the extremes. These were normal adults and their
     families, and on average, for those who used the Internet most,
     things got worse."
     The Internet has been praised as superior to television and other
     "passive" media because it allows users to choose the kind of
     information they want to receive, and often, to respond actively to
     it in the form of e-mail exchanges with other users, chat rooms or
     electronic bulletin board postings.
     Research on the effects of watching television indicates that it
     tends to reduce social involvement. But the new study, titled
     "HomeNet," suggests that the interactive medium may be no more
     socially healthy than older mass media. It also raises troubling
     questions about the nature of "virtual" communication and the
     disembodied relationships that are often formed in the vacuum of
     Participants in the study used inherently social features like
     e-mail and Internet chat more than they used passive information
     gathering like reading or watching videos. But they reported a
     decline in interaction with family members and a reduction in their
     circles of friends that directly corresponded to the amount of time
     they spent online.
     At the beginning and end of the two-year study, the subjects were
     asked to agree or disagree with statements like "I felt everything
     I did was an effort," and "I enjoyed life" and "I can find
     companionship when I want it." They were also asked to estimate how
     many minutes each day they spent with each member of their family
     and to quantify their social circle. Many of these are standard
     questions in tests used to determine psychological health.
     For the duration of the study, the subjects' use of the Internet
     was recorded. For the purposes of this study, depression and
     loneliness were measured independently, and each subject was rated
     on a subjective scale. In measuring depression, the responses were
     plotted on a scale of 0 to 3, with 0 being the least depressed and
     3 being the most depressed. Loneliness was plotted on a scale of 1
     to 5.
     By the end of the study, the researchers found that one hour a week
     on the Internet led, on average, to an increase of .03, or 1
     percent, on the depression scale, a loss of 2.7 members of the
     subject's social circle, which averaged 66 people, and an increase
     of .02, or four-tenths of 1 percent, on the loneliness scale.
     The subjects exhibited wide variations in all three measured
     effects, and while the net effects were not large, they were
     statistically significant in demonstrating deterioration of social
     and psychological life, Kraut said.
     Related Article
     Study Says 70 Million American Adults Use the Internet
     (Aug. 26)
     Based on these data, the researchers hypothesize that relationships
     maintained over long distances without face-to-face contact
     ultimately do not provide the kind of support and reciprocity that
     typically contribute to a sense of psychological security and
     happiness, like being available to baby-sit in a pinch for a
     friend, or to grab a cup of coffee.
     "Our hypothesis is there are more cases where you're building
     shallow relationships, leading to an overall decline in feeling of
     connection to other people," Kraut said.
     The study tracked the behavior of 169 participants in the
     Pittsburgh area who were selected from four schools and community
     groups. Half the group was measured through two years of Internet
     use, and the other half for one year. The findings will be
     published this week by The American Psychologist, the peer-reviewed
     monthly journal of the American Psychological Association.
     Because the study participants were not randomly selected, it is
     unclear how the findings apply to the general population. It is
     also conceivable that some unmeasured factor caused simultaneous
     increases in use of the Internet and decline in normal levels of
     social involvement. Moreover, the effect of Internet use varied
     depending on an individual's life patterns and type of use.
     Researchers said that people who were isolated because of their
     geography or work shifts might have benefited socially from
     Internet use.
     Even so, several social scientists familiar with the study vouched
     for its credibility and predicted that the findings would probably
     touch off a national debate over how public policy on the Internet
     should evolve and how the technology itself might be shaped to
     yield more beneficial effects.
     "They did an extremely careful scientific study, and it's not a
     result that's easily ignored," said Tora Bikson, a senior scientist
     at Rand, the research institution. Based in part on previous
     studies that focused on how local communities like Santa Monica,
     Calif., used computer networks to enhance civic participation, Rand
     has recommended that the federal government provide e-mail access
     to all Americans.
     "It's not clear what the underlying psychological explanation is,"
     Ms. Bikson said of the study. "Is it because people give up
     day-to-day contact and then find themselves depressed? Or are they
     exposed to the broader world of Internet and then wonder, 'What am
     I doing here in Pittsburgh?' Maybe your comparison standard
     changes. I'd like to see this replicated on a larger scale. Then
     I'd really worry."
     Christine Riley, a psychologist at Intel Corp., the giant chip
     manufacturer that was among the sponsors of the study, said she was
     surprised by the results but did not consider the research
     "For us, the point is there was really no information on this
     before," Ms. Riley said. "But it's important to remember this is
     not about the technology, per se; it's about how it is used. It
     really points to the need for considering social factors in terms
     of how you design applications and services for technology."
     The Carnegie Mellon team -- which included Sara Kiesler, a social
     psychologist who helped pioneer the study of human interaction over
     computer networks; Tridas Mukophadhyay, a professor at the graduate
     business school who has examined computer mediated communication in
     the workplace; and William Scherlis, a research scientist in
     computer science -- stressed that the negative effects of Internet
     use that they found were not inevitable.
     For example, the main focus of Internet use in schools has been
     gathering information and getting in touch with people from
     far-away places. But the research suggests that maintaining social
     ties with people in close physical proximity could be more
     psychologically healthy.
     "More intense development and deployment of services that support
     pre-existing communities and strong relationships should be
     encouraged," the researchers write in their forthcoming article.
     "Government efforts to wire the nation's schools, for example,
     should consider online homework sessions for students rather than
     just online reference works."
     At a time when Internet use is expanding rapidly -- nearly 70
     million adult Americans are on line, according to Nielsen Media
     Research -- social critics say the technology could exacerbate the
     fragmentation of U.S. society or help to fuse it, depending on how
     it is used.
     "There are two things the Internet can turn out to be, and we don't
     know yet which it's going to be," said Robert Putnam, a political
     scientist at Harvard University whose forthcoming book, "Bowling
     Alone," which is to be published next year by Simon & Schuster,
     chronicles the alienation of Americans from each other since the
     1960s. "The fact that I'm able to communicate daily with my
     collaborators in Germany and Japan makes me more efficient, but
     there are a lot of things it can't do, like bring me chicken soup."
     Putnam added, "The question is how can you push computer mediated
     communication in a direction that would make it more community
     Perhaps paradoxically, several participants in the Internet study
     expressed surprise when they were informed of the study's
     conclusions by a reporter.
     "For me it's been the opposite of depression; it's been a way of
     being connected," said Rabbi Alvin Berkun, who used the Internet
     for a few hours a week to read The Jerusalem Post and communicate
     with other rabbis across the country.
     But Berkun said his wife did not share his enthusiasm for the
     medium. "She does sometimes resent when I go and hook up," he said,
     adding after a pause, "I guess I am away from where my family is
     while I'm on the computer." Another possibility is that the natural
     human preference for face-to-face communication may provide a
     self-correcting mechanism to the technology that tries to cross it.
     The rabbi's daughter, Rebecca, 17, said she had spent a fair amount
     of time in teen-age chat rooms at the beginning of the survey in
     "I can see how people would get depressed," Ms. Berkun said. "When
     we first got it, I would be on for an hour a day or more. But I
     found it was the same type of people, the same type of things being
     said. It got kind of old."
    Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company

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Created: August 30, 1998
Last Updated: May 28, 2000