Image source, Getty Images

  • Author, Chris Vallance & Philippa Wain
  • Role, Technology reporters

Internet access and use is consistently associated with positive wellbeing, a new study of data from 168 countries by the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) suggests.

In many parts of the world, including the EU and UK, concerns about online harms have prompted new laws.

The OII says some of its findings are “consistent” with reported links between social media use and depressive symptoms among young women.

But it concludes the overall benefits of being online show regulators contemplating tougher laws should rely on data and not be “guided by anecdote.”

“I anticipate that this work will be in some ways seen in contrast to the kind of the current social conversation surrounding tech,” said professor Andrew Przybylski, of Oxford University, who led the research.

“If we’re going to make the online world safe for young people, we can’t just go in guns blazing with strong beliefs and a one size fits all solution – we really need to make sure that we’re sensitive to having our minds changed by data,” he said.

The study did not look specifically at social media – which is what much of the most heated debate around online safety is focussed on – but took a broader approach to assessing access to the internet.

Researchers analysed data gathered between 2006 and 2021 from two million individuals aged 15 to 99 worldwide, including from countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa

They found that people who had internet access or actively used the internet reported greater levels of life satisfaction and social wellbeing.

Statistician professor Kevin McConway said it was very “broad brush” research, but useful nonetheless.

“It’s a starting point, and if nothing else it casts very serious doubt on the view, held by some people, that the Internet is bad for us all,” he wrote.

Young women

The researchers studied eight indicators of wellbeing including life satisfaction, daily negative and positive experiences and community wellbeing.

They looked at a “multiverse” of nearly 34,000 different statistical models and subsets of data.

In 85% of cases these showed associations between internet connectivity and wellbeing that were positive and statistically significant.

But 5% of associations linking internet use and community wellbeing were negative, with most of those observed among young women aged 15 to 24.

While this does not prove that internet access causes them unhappiness, the paper notes that it is “consistent with previous reports of increased cyberbullying and more negative associations between social media use and depressive symptoms among young women”.

Dr Ruth Plackett, Senior Research Fellow at University College London, said it was important to understand the limitations in what the research could reveal – for example the fact it looked at the “average” person about in a given country.

“For instance it doesn’t isolate social media use”, she told the BBC.

“We do know young people can be exposed to harmful content on these platforms which may give more negative associations with internet use”.

However, she told the BBC she welcomed calls for a more nuanced discussion about the use of the internet.

Simone Vibert, head of policy and research at Internet Matters, which offers online safety advice, said their research similarly showed that being online came with many benefits but there were also negatives.

“There is a clear need for an evidence-based approach, making evidence such as this and further research vital.”

‘Letting families down’

The researchers also acknowledge the study has limits, notably not being able to prove cause and effect.

For example, the authors could not entirely discount the possibility that increases in incomes, which were also linked to rises in internet access, were behind people feeling better.

But it had clear lessons for policy makers looking at increasing protections for young people online, Prof Przybylski said.

He pointed to a lack of peer-reviewed studies on the subject, and the fact the majority of the research that had been carried out focussed on English-speaking, wealthier nations.

“We really do want the best for our kids,” he explained, but said that meant following the data.

“If our policy and if our resources are guided by anecdote we’re going to be letting a lot of families down”.

Previous OII work carried out by Prof Przybylski found there was no evidence that the global spread of Facebook was linked to widespread psychological harm.

Like Prof Przybylsk’s earlier research, this work, carried out with co-author Professor Matti Vuorre, is based on information from the Gallup World Poll, a survey of millions of people around the world.

The study will be published in the peer-reviewed journal Technology, Mind and Behavior.

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