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Don’t worry: Hanging out on the Internet won’t drive you insane

There is no conclusive evidence that increased Internet use results in loneliness, isolation or psychosis.

Despite Newsweek’s scary-sounding July 9 cover article, spending time on the Internet will not cause you — or anyone else — to become lonely, depressed or even (Heaven forbid!) psychotic.

For, as Maia Szalavitz, a health writer for points out, Newsweek’s suggestion that Internet use can lead to mental illness “runs counter to what the research data actually show”:

[Newsweek senior reporter Tony] Dokoupil makes much of brain scan studies suggesting that Internet use “rewires” the brain in ways that look similar to changes seen in drug addiction. The reality is that any enjoyable activity leads to changes in the brain’s pleasure regions if a person engages in it frequently enough. Indeed, any activity we perform repeatedly will lead to brain changes: that’s known as learning. Riding a bicycle and playing the violin also rewire the brain, but we don’t choose to refer to these changes as “damage.”

As yet, there is no brain scan that can clearly determine whether certain brain changes signify addiction or simple, harmless enjoyment. Nor can brain scans predict, in the case of addiction, who will be able to regain control over their behavior and who will not.

Writing on his blog Mindhacks, British psychologist Vaughan Bell is equally dismissive of the Newsweek article, calling it “a litany of scientific stereotypes and exaggeration.”

One of the most egregious statements in the article, says Bell, is this one: “The current incarnation of the Internet — portable, social, accelerated, and all-pervasive — may be making us not just dumber or lonelier but more depressed and anxious, prone to obsessive-compulsive and attention-deficit disorders, even outright psychotic.”

Writes Bell:

This is an amazing list of mental illnesses supposedly caused by the internet but really Newsweek? Psychosis? A condition ranked by the World Health Organisation as the third most disabling health condition there is and one that is only beaten in its ability to disable by total limb paralysis and dementia and that comes ahead of leg paralysis and blindness.

We’re talking schizophrenia and severe bipolar disorder here. The mention of psychosis even makes the front page, of one of the most respected news magazines in the world, so this must be pretty striking evidence.

But what is the evidence cited by Newsweek? A 1998 Carnegie Mellon study that found that “Web use over a two-year period was linked to blue moods, loneliness, and the loss of real-world friends.”

Yet, reports Bell, a three-year follow-up to that study — a follow-up not mentioned in the Newsweek article — found that those negative effects dissipated.

Incredibly, as Time’s Szalavitz notes, the Newsweek article also

approvingly cites an expert who has become a target of widespread ridicule in the science blogosphere for her extreme claims about Internet-related brain damage. Baroness Susan Greenfield, a pharmacology professor at Oxford, told Dokoupil in her typically understated way that the Internet problem “is an issue as important and unprecedented as climate change.”

Greenfield has never published a study on Internet use. The logic behind her claims is often befuddling: for example, this is how she attempted to explain why she believes the Internet has something to do with the recent rise in autism, in a 2011 interview with the Guardian: “I point to the increase in autism and I point to Internet use. That’s all.” Obviously, that is not scientific reasoning, which is why her comments inspired an Internet meme (among other outrage and disdain) that trended on Twitter.

Dr. Ben Goldacre, a leading British science journalist and author of the “Bad Science” blog, sums up the criticisms of Greenfield this way: “[Her ideas] are never set out as a clear hypothesis, in a formal academic publication, with the accompanying evidence and a clear suggestion of what research programmes might be planned to clarify any uncertainties.”

So, if you are a frequent surfer of the Web (and reader of Newsweek), don’t panic. “The internet will apparently make you psychotic if you only listen to the three people who think so,” writes Bell. “Or Newsweek, that is.”

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