Online blues? Other
researchers see red

"Sad, Lonely World Discovered in Cyberspace," the New York Times warned soberly. The Des Moines Register asked "Caught in a Net of Loneliness?"; the Washington Post, "What is the Internet Doing to Us?" "Cyberspace: Lonely Out There," proclaimed the Raleigh News and Observer.

Why so much gloom over a technology that so many of us find so useful and (dare we suggest) fun? These headlines are just a few soundbites from the media panic that preceded this fall's release of a Carnegie-Mellon University study on Internet use and depression. In a non-random study of 169 people in 73 households, researchers thought they found a small but statistically significant increase in loneliness and depression associated with increased Internet use. Many media outlets, though the researchers were cautious about drawing drastic conclusions from their study, immediately reported the link between online use and depression as a rock-solid causality--as in the AP's headline "More Internet Use is More Depressing."

Within the week, journalists like Salon magazine's Scott Rosenberg and the New York Times' Denise Caruso--along with a host of academics--started raising questions about the HomeNet study. Numerous news reports then began quoting critical experts, who pointed out that the Carnegie-Mellon researchers had used no control group of demographically similar people who stayed offline. The sample also wasn't random: The subjects had never spent time online before and received free and unlimited access from Carnegie-Mellon in return for participating in the study. Other observers noted that many of the participants were teenagers, who are subject to inexplicable mood swings. Quite a few jokers pointed out a geographical problem: Maybe it's always increasingly depressing to live in Pittsburgh. Still others noted that it could be a stretch to call a 1 percent self-reported increase (in quite subjectively defined feelings) "statistically significant."

Dr. Michael Liebowitz, a Columbia University psychiatrist and director of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at New York State Psychiatric Institute, was skeptical about the researchers'--and the media's--notion that the Internet was causing depression: "I think it's the other way around. They go on because they're depressed. From my experience with my own patients, [the Internet] is like video games: If people don't have the motivation to do much else, they can still find something pleasurable in it."

Columbia sociologist Herbert Gans sums up the fracas aptly: "It was a perfect person-bites-dog story, but if the journalists involved knew how to understand research they would have seen its many faults at once, and noticed that the person barely nicked the dog." Noting that a few days later, reporters did write about the widespead academic criticism of the study, Gans comments, "One might ask why the first set of reporters did not ask professional researchers to look at the study before they wrote their pieces, but that would have killed the story, wouldn't it?"

Why were the media so eager to believe that the Internet is a downer? And why, despite the study's now widely covered flaws, are many print reporters still referring to it uncritically? Gans thinks it's because most journalists don't really understand the basics of research methodology. John Pavlik, executive director of the Center for New Media and professor at the Graduate School of Journalism, thinks the Carnegie-Mellon study got caught in the crossfire of the old- and new-media wars.

He notes that among journalists working in traditional media, "'Internet is bad' stories are very popular: child porn, Internet gambling, links between the Internet and drug use, [online] white-collar crime, the fear that someone's going to steal your identity." Indeed, the famous pornography study also conducted at Carnegie-Mellon--now considered deeply flawed--got so much play that many now hold it responsible for the Communications Decency Act of 1995. The role of electronic communication in several high-profile rapes, murders, and stalkings has also been grimly highlighted. At around the same time that the HomeNet study was released, the media was also frothing at the mouth over the equally dubious threat of "Internet addiction." "They're afraid of it," Pavlik says of traditional journalists and the Internet. "They're threatened by it because it turns over too much control to the reader." Not surprisingly, some of the most thoughful coverage of the HomeNet study appeared in online magazines like Salon and Feed. But the Village Voice should be credited with the most delightfully zany response. The paper, tacitly acknowledging both the study's absurdity and its larger metaphorical truth (that these technologies can bring us takeout Chinese food but can't fully nourish our souls), assigned--or condemned--reporter Austin Bunn to stay online for a whole week and report on his mental state. The poor fellow cracked after only a couple days. In one of his last diary entries he writes: "6:15 [a.m.]. I leave the apartment and walk to Prospect Park. I'm breaking the rules, but I can't help it. This test is over. I'm not sick exactly, but still definitely in need of a cure." -- Liza Featherstone

Related links...

  • Howard Rheingold, "Misunderstanding New Media," Feed

  • HomeNet Project, Carnegie-Mellon

  • Carnegie-Mellon news release about depression study

  • "The Internet Is Not A Television," Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition

  • Gregory R. Gromov, "The Roads and Crossroads of Internet History," Internet Valley (consulting firm, Sacramento, Calif.)

  • "Protecting the Internet," collection of documents pertaining to CDA and telecommunications bill, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT)

  • Wyn Hilty, "Does the Net really bum you out?" Orange County Weekly

  • LIZA FEATHERSTONE, a free-lance journalist based in New York, has contributed to Columbia Journalism Review, The Nation, Rolling Stone, Salon, Newsday, 21stC, and other publications.

    Art Credits:
    Cartoon: Debra Solomon