A longitudinal study reveals how using the internet as a form of escape can lead to an increase in depressive symptoms

New research suggests that using the Internet to escape anxiety may be harmless in the short term, but can lead to emotional problems in the future. The study found that people with a greater tendency to use the Internet as a distraction had higher average levels of problematic and depressive Internet use. The results were published in the journal Computer in human behavior.

People are spending more time online than ever before, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. But when a person loses control over their use of the Internet so that it interferes with other activities in their life, psychologists refer to this as “problematic Internet use.” Lack of control over Internet activity has been associated with a range of negative mental health outcomes, although the path behind this relationship remains unclear.

Study authors Cristóbal Hernández and his team aimed to explore whether the tendency to use the Internet to distract negative emotions might play a role in the equation. When people persistently use the Internet to distract themselves from difficult situations, it may reinforce the idea that difficult situations are unchangeable, reinforcing feelings of depression. The researchers conducted a longitudinal study to explore how Internet use as a distraction, problematic Internet use, and depressive symptoms interacted over time.

A group of 163 individuals from Chile participated in the study and responded to surveys for 35 days. Every two days, participants were asked questions regarding problematic Internet use (“In the past two days, it has been difficult for me to control how much time I spent online, video games, or social media”) and Internet use as a distraction (“In the past two days, I have used the internet to separate myself from my fears.”). Depressive symptoms were evaluated every five days.

Notably, participant data was collected during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, between April and June 2020 – a time when stress levels were high and internet use was higher than normal.

The researchers found that people who had a higher average tendency to use the Internet for distraction from anxiety also had higher average levels of depression and higher average levels of Internet use problems. Notably, momentary fluctuations in Internet use as a distraction were not associated with momentary increases in depression. The authors say this suggests that using the Internet to escape emotions is not a bad thing in the short term, but in the long term – if one’s average levels are high – it can become detrimental to mental health.

Objectively, Hernandez and colleagues write: “Thematically, chronically using the Internet to disconnect from fears may act as an emotional barrier to relieving negative emotions in the short term, but at the expense of enhancing problematic technology use and depressive symptoms if it becomes a habit.”

Furthermore, mediation analysis suggested that problematic Internet use helped explain the link between Internet use as a distraction and depression. Participants with higher levels of internet distraction on average tended to show more difficulty controlling their internet use over time, which in turn was associated with higher than average levels of depressive symptoms. The reverse pathway was also significant—people with higher levels of depression tended to show greater difficulty controlling their internet use, which in turn was associated with a higher average propensity to use the internet to distract them from anxiety.

The authors say that their findings underscore the importance of considering a person’s intentions to use the Internet when addressing problems related to controlling Internet use. Future studies need to be conducted to see if the findings replicate outside the context of COVID-19.

The study, “Watching the World from My Screen: A Longitudinal Assessment of the Impact of Problematic Internet Use on Depressive Symptoms,” by Cristóbal Hernandez, Marian Cotten, Fernando Parada, Nicolas Lappé, Catalina Nunez, Yamil Quevedo, Antonella Davanzo and Alex Behn.