Internet activity may help diagnose depression

Depressed people may spend more time on certain online activities, scientists have found.

The team of four researchers at the Missouri University of Science and Technology (MST) were the first to investigate Internet traffic and match it to anonymised students who had symptoms of depression.

In their paper, the scientists have written that “several Internet usage features… exhibit a statistically significant correlation with depressive symptoms.”

They are careful to point out, however, that they were not able to establish whether one caused the other.

The cross-disciplinary research involved academics in computer science, psychology and computer engineering studying 216 undergraduate subjects.

The research breaks new ground as previous studies relied on subjects to report their own Internet usage accurately through questionnaires.

By breaking Internet traffic into eight categories, ranging from web browsing to remote file access, the researchers managed to compare the usage of students with and without symptoms of depression.

Students who scored higher on the test for depressive symptoms were found to be heavier users of email, chat and peer-to-peer file-sharing software, as well as watching more videos and playing more games online.

Consultant in cyberpsychology Eleanor Barlow said that the researchers should conduct longer-term studies with more varied subjects, to get a clearer picture of how Internet use and depressive symptoms interact over time.

“This is a study of a very specific group, of a certain age range,” the Telegraph quoted her as saying.

“I be very careful of extrapolating this to be representative of anyone other than students,” she said.

But the study could offer ideas for further possibility of research.

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“People who are unhappy seek out support networks of like-minded individuals,” Barlow said.

“The Internet has been a powerful force for enabling that process, and many studies show the positive impacts of using communications technology. The challenge is to make sure that internet use is therapeutic for depressed people – we’re not going to be able to stop them using it,” she added.

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