No ‘smoking gun’ mental health harm from internet: landmark Oxford survey

28 November 2023

  • Study of two million individuals’ psychological well-being from 2005 to 2022 in 168 countries, in relation to country-level internet-use and mobile broadband statistics
  • Negative and positive experiences had increased on average, but little to no evidence suggesting (mobile) internet use was associated with these changes

Links between internet adoption and psychological well-being are small at most, despite popular assumptions about the negative psychological effects of internet technologies and platforms, according to a major international study published today by the Oxford Internet Institute.

The study examined data from two million individuals aged 15 to 89 in 168 countries, yet found smaller and less consistent associations than would be expected, if the internet were causing widespread psychological harm, according to the research team.

Professor Andrew Przybylski, Oxford Internet Institute and Assistant Professor Matti Vuorre, Tilburg University and Research Associate, Oxford Internet Institute, carried out the study, which shows the last two decades have seen only small and inconsistent changes in global well-being and mental health.

Professor Przybylski says, ‘We looked very hard for a ‘smoking gun’ linking technology and well-being and we didn’t find it.’

Professor Vuorre notes, ‘We studied the most extensive data on well-being and internet adoption ever considered, both over time and population demographics. Although we couldn’t address causal effects of internet use, our descriptive results indicated small and inconsistent associations.’

Filtering the results by age group and gender has not revealed any specific demographic patterns among internet users, this includes women and young girls. In fact, for the average country, life satisfaction had increased more for females over the period.

According to Professor Przybylski, ‘We meticulously tested whether there is anything special in terms of age or gender, but there is no evidence to support popular ideas that certain groups are more at risk.’
The team maintains, ‘We put our findings under a more extreme test to see if there are matters which we have missed and we did find increased mobile broadband adoption predicted greater life satisfaction, but this association was too small to be of practical significance.’

But, the team insists, technology companies need to provide more data, if there is to be conclusive evidence of the impacts of internet use. The research says, ‘Research on the effects of internet technologies is stalled because the data most urgently needed are collected and held behind closed doors by technology companies and online platforms.

‘It is crucial to study, in more detail and with more transparency from all stakeholders, data on individual adoption of and engagement with Internet-based technologies. These data exist and are continuously analysed by global technology firms for marketing and product improvement but unfortunately are not accessible for independent research.’

In today’s study, the researchers contrast two different studies of data on well-being and mental health against the countries' per capita internet users and mobile broadband subscriptions and use, to see if internet adoption predicts psychological well-being. In the second study they use data on rates of anxiety, depression and self-harm from 2000-2019 in some 200 countries and analyse their associations with internet adoption.

Wellbeing was assessed using data from face to face and phone surveys by local interviewers in the respondents’ native languages. Mental health was assessed using statistical estimates of depressive disorders, anxiety disorders and self-harm in some 200 countries from 2000 to 2019, as estimated by aggregated health data from World Health Organisation member states.

The full paper, ‘Global Well-Being and Mental Health in the Internet Age’ will be published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.

Notes for Editors:

For more information, embargoed reports and briefings, please contact: Sara Spinks/Roz Pacey, Media and Communications Manager. T: 01865 280528 E: press@oii.ox.ac.uk

About the Research
The researchers analysed secondary data from the ITU (national telecom data), The Gallup World Poll, and the GBD (model estimates from IHME). The work by Matti Vuorre and Andrew.K.Przybylski was supported by the Huo Family Foundation which had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the article.

About the OII
The Oxford Internet Institute (OII) is a multidisciplinary research and teaching department of the University of Oxford, dedicated to the social science of the Internet. Drawing from many different disciplines, the OII works to understand how individual and collective behaviour online shapes our social, economic and political world. Since its founding in 2001, research from the OII has had a significant impact on policy debate, formulation and implementation around the globe, as well as a secondary impact on people’s wellbeing, safety and understanding. Drawing on many different disciplines, the OII takes a combined approach to tackling society’s big questions, with the aim of positively shaping the development of the digital world for the public good. https://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/

About the University of Oxford
Oxford University has been placed number one in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for the seventh year running, and number two in the QS World Rankings 2022. At the heart of this success are the twin-pillars of our ground-breaking research and innovation and our distinctive educational offer. Oxford is world-famous for research and teaching excellence and home to some of the most talented people from across the globe.