Using the Internet for health purposes was associated with increased depression

The rapid expansion of the Internet has increased the ease with which the public can obtain medical information. Most research on the utility of the Internet for health purposes has evaluated the quality of the information or examined its impact on clinical populations. Little is known about the consequences of its use by the general population.

Health-related Internet use was associated with small but reliable increases in depression (i.e., increasing use of the Internet for health purposes from 3 to 5 days per week to once a day was associated with 0.11 standard deviations more symptoms of depression, P = 0.002).

Using the Internet for health purposes was associated with increased depression. The increase may be due to increased rumination, unnecessary alarm, or over-attention to health problems.

In contrast, using the Internet to communicate with friends and family was associated with declines in depression.

Negative consequences from the use of internet for health information - CDC (PDF) via
Image source: Wikipedia, public domain.

Updated: 08/12/2010


  1. Too much attention focused strictly on one's medical conditions can cause unnecessary anxiety and worry so it is important to take part in positive social interactions during the process of learning about one's medical condition.

  2. Don't put much stock in this abstract or in the study it refers to. The article at the link itself does a much better job of describing the research and its limitations.

    Longitudinal research helps to examine causation, but association/correlation is not causation. 18 months is not very long in terms of longitudinal research.

    Always consider the possibility of alternatives .... other intervening variables. For example, people with serious medical problems are naturally prone to depression. The study did attempt to control for this, but I'm not convinced they succeeded.

    There is a sampling bias. For example, 25% of the respondents did not have Internet access. There was significant attrition in the follow up surveys.

    The statistical analysis in this abstract reported above uses standard deviations in a non-standard way. Usually, means (or medians) of the two groups are compared. Or correlation coefficient of the regression is reported. Standard deviation lets you know whether the data had a normal distribution (supporting the choice of statistical test for significance) or whether the data had a lot of variation, indicating a higher margin of error or the possible influence of other factors).

    The research report actually indicates the researchers used regression, which is much more appropriate. Still not sure if their data met the normal distribution requirement of the analysis.

    Also, this is self-report data rather than a more objective set of measures. People forget or over/under-estimate.

    The study does support further research. But don't give this study's conclusion a lot of weight by itself. And don't depend on the headline of the abstract on this page.

  3. How can you not depend on the "abstract title" (it is really a blog post title) if it just quotes the conclusion of the paper:

    "Conclusions: Using the Internet for health purposes was associated with increased depression. "

    Also, of course, the full-text paper provides more details - that's why it is full-text... :)

    You are free to "consider alternatives" and wait for the very best randomized control trial all your life. In the meantime, we have to work with the evidence we have.


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