Does Internet use improve well-being? The study suggests it is for everyone but young women

Daily use of the Internet generates the same sense of well-being as taking a walk in the park. So say Andrew Przybylski, professor at the University of Oxford, and Matti Vuorre, from the University of Tilburg, after they found that people with access to the Internet were 8% more satisfied with their lives than those who did not have access to the Internet. “The differences in happiness between people who go for walks and those who don’t are of a similar magnitude to what we see at this very high level between people who go online and those who don’t,” says Vuorre. However, according to a recent macro study published in the journal, women between the ages of 15 and 24 who used the Internet were less happy. Nature.

It is the first sample to address Internet access and well-being on a large scale: it analyzed Internet access data for 2,414,294 people from 168 countries. “There are studies on this, but most have been small-scale in developed Western countries, usually English-speaking. This is a fairly new look”, says Matti Vuorre. The researchers took data from the Gallup GWP World Poll conducted by the Gallup analysis company, between 2006 and 2021. Respondents were asked if they had Internet access at home, if they had Internet access on their mobile phone, and if they used the Internet in the last seven days, from a mobile phone, computer or other device.

For the study, the authors took into account eight indicators to assess “well-being”: life satisfaction, the degree of negative and positive experiences, social relationships, physical well-being, comfort in residence and employee motivation. “We first looked at the degree to which well-being varied as a function of Internet connectivity. We then examined the robustness of these associations across a multiverse of 33,792 assay specifications,” the authors write. “Of these, 84.9% resulted in positive and statistically significant associations between Internet connectivity and well-being. These results indicate that Internet access and use predict well-being positively and independently of a number of plausible alternatives.” The “multiverse” system repeatedly fitted a similar model to potentially different subsets of the data using potentially different predictors, outcomes, and covariates in order to rule out that the associations between Internet use and well-being were being caused by something else. .

Cyber ​​bullying and social media

The authors note that although 84.9% of the associations were significantly positive, and only 0.4% were negative, “we did, however, observe a significant set of negative associations between Internet use and community well-being. These negative associations were specific to young women’s (ages 15–24) reports of community well-being.”

“Although not a causal relationship identified, this finding is consistent with previous reports of increased cyberbullying and more negative associations between social media use and depressive symptoms,” added the study, which warrants further analysis. For Andrea Vizcaíno Cuenca, a psychologist and CEO of the Spanish medical center Policlínica Maio, who was not involved in the study, the problem lies with social media: “They encourage social comparison, especially among young women. Viewing carefully selected and edited images of others can lead to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. Constant exposure to unrealistic beauty standards for women contributes to lower emotional well-being and a negative perception of the environment.”

To measure community well-being, respondents were asked if the city they lived in was a perfect place or if in the past 12 months they had done something to improve the area they lived in. Girls who used the Internet confessed to being less happy with where they lived, according to the study. Przybylski says it could be because people who don’t feel welcome in their community spend more time online.

Cyberbullying is a serious problem that “disproportionately” affects young women, says Vizcaíno: in Spain, 3% of 15-year-old girls claim to have suffered bullying at school at least two or three times a month, according to a report by World Health Organization (WHO). Its effects can be “devastating” to mental health, such as increased levels of anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. “They can directly contribute to a negative perception of community well-being, as bullying experiences can make victims feel isolated and disconnected from their community,” adds Vizcaíno. One in six teenagers suffer from cyberbullying, representing an increase from 13% to 16% among girls and 12% to 15% among boys by 2023, according to the WHO. The study calls for future research to see whether low community well-being drives Internet engagement or vice versa.

From the Internet to the cinema

Although the debate between technology and well-being continues, it now seems unimaginable to live without the Internet. Not everything is harmful in cyberspace and this is what the study tries to explain. Rebeca Cordero, professor of applied sociology at the European University of Madrid, reflects on this: “We have to get rid of that negative vision that the Internet is something bad or harmful. A well-used tool can generate well-being.” Digital disconnection can even reduce life satisfaction, as explained in another study in November last year. Social media provide powerful social rewards, and limiting them can reduce positive emotions.

Despite this, experts such as health psychologist José Antonio Tamayo disagree with the study’s findings. Tamayo points out that the GWP Global Survey is not a psychometrically validated instrument and that the questions are based on a definition of “well-being” unique to GWP. Furthermore, respondents’ answers present risks of recall, social desirability or conformity bias, he explains. “When we talk about well-being it’s a personal perception, what we do is study perceptions. I may feel that what I am exposed to generates my well-being, but in reality it does not.” Tamayo also does not rule out that other factors intervene between Internet use and well-being, such as income level. The study takes economic differences into account, although “data and model selection were limited.”

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