Last week the Singapore Coroner’s Court ruled out foul play in the tragic death of American technology entrepreneur Autumn Radtke. According to the State Coroner, the young CEO of First Meta—a Bitcoin exchange start-up—was facing severe work-related stress and financial difficulties, which may have ultimately driven her to suicide.
When a young person chooses to end his or her life, people are immediately inclined to ask why. What could cause a successful and previously happy individual to take such drastic action? With the Registry of Birth and Death (ICA Singapore) July 2013 statistics showing the number of suicides among those aged below 30 years old remaining high over the last few years, we are often tempted to wonder whether contemporary society is pushing young people too far.
The rise of the internet, particularly social media, often features prominently this particular manifestation of the blame game. Accounts of the events leading up to Radtke’s death indicate that she had researched suicide methods online, while some have wondered why she chose not to confide her long-term boyfriend. With this in mind, society may speculate that the internet had a part to play in her suicide. Is this a fair speculation? Is there any evidence that the social internet is harming our mental health?
This is a complex question, but the balance of evidence suggests that such pessimistic appraisals are unwarranted. The internet, as a facilitator of online communication, has tremendous potential to enhance mental well-being, and claims of its harmful effects are usually based more in irrational mistrust rather than hard evidence.
Technophobia is nothing new. In the 16th century the Swiss scientist Conrad Gessner warned that the printing press would unleash a harmful torrent of information that would corrupt and confuse the minds of vulnerable medieval Europeans, while more recently new technologies such as television and video games have been blamed for everything from lowering attention spans to promoting youth violence.
When faced with hysteria, the best thing is to take a rational approach, and the work of scientists can provide a healthy sense of perspective when faced with media scaremongering. A lot of research has been conducted since the days of dial-up modems and Netscape Navigator, the sum total of which points to a more complex set of relationships between internet use and mental well-being.
One of the most infamous early studies of internet use was conducted by a team of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University between 1995 and 1996, who found small correlations between internet use and increases in loneliness and depression, and with reductions in the size of the average participant’s local social network (1). Predictably, the American press latched onto the findings. The New York Times declared a “Sad, lonely world discovered in cyberspace” on their front page, and the pervasive notion of the isolating internet was born.
Yet, a more detailed look at the results painted quite a different picture. Two psychologists from New York University pointed out that average levels of depression actually decreased during the study, and the size of the participant’s extended social networks actually went up (2).
Since then researchers have gathered plentiful evidence for a more positive role of online activity in promoting connectedness and well-being. One psychologist from the UK’s Open University found that computer-mediated communication encouraged people to talk more openly about themselves compared to face-to-face conversations (3), while researchers in the Netherlands found that the extent of online communication among adolescents predicted the closeness of their friendships (4).
Nonetheless, as the internet has become progressively more social, preoccupation with possible negative effects has narrowed from “the internet in general” to “social media in particular”. Again, the evidence is mixed. Some researchers have documented associations between Facebook use and increased loneliness (5, 6), while others have found that higher social network use is associated with enhanced life satisfaction (7, 8).
One thing however seems increasingly clear: online communication is not causing our real-life social networks to shrink. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania have found that mobile phone and internet use, especially the use of social media, is associated with enhanced network size and diversity (9), while others have found that social network users keep in touch with more people (10).
Most people will have felt the occasional pang of jealousy when seeing their Facebook friend’s holiday photos, and many will admit to reflexively checking their phone during lulls in conversation. Still, that’s no reason to conclude that the social internet is inherently bad. Like most things, moderation is key (problematic internet use among a small minority of young people is a genuine concern), and there are many ways in which online communication and social media can actually help those in need.
Lack of awareness and the social stigma attached to seeking help are two of the biggest barriers to those with emotional issues seeking help. As such, support organisations are increasingly turning to online tools that help overcome these obstacles. Email befriending services appeal to those who don’t feel ready to speak to a counselor in person, while online discussion and support groups have been found to greatly help those suffering from common mental issues such as depression and anxiety.
These are just two examples of the myriad ways the internet can potentially enhance mental well-being. As people increasingly turn to online resources when seeking medical advice—it is estimated that 5% of internet searches are health-related (11)—mental health providers can assist those in need by providing high quality information and opening channels of communication. Without the pressures of face-to-face consultations, individuals are more likely to make that all-important first step towards seeking help.
The internet even offers the possibility of more effective treatments. Trials of online cognitive-behavioural therapy programmes for the treatment of depression have yielded encouraging results (12, 13), and preliminary evidence suggests that such interventions may also be viable for treating anxiety disorders (14). While issues of high dropout need to be addressed, the potential impact of low-cost, highly accessible online treatments for mental disorders is huge, and this should be an area of priority for future research.
The promise of technology is the power to improve lives. Change often makes people uncomfortable, but we should be glad that social internet affords us more opportunities to nurture relationships and access valuable information. By harnessing these powers in the right way, there is hope that more tragedies like the death of Autumn Radtke can be avoided.
- Kraut, R., Patterson, M., Lundmark, V., Kiesler, S., Mukophadhyay, T., & Scherlis, W. (1998). Internet paradox: A social technology that reduces social involvement and psychological well-being?. American psychologist, 53(9), 1017.
- McKenna, K. Y., & Bargh, J. A. (2000). Plan 9 from cyberspace: The implications of the Internet for personality and social psychology. Personality and social psychology review, 4(1), 57-75.
- Joinson, A. N. (2001). Self‐disclosure in computer‐mediated communication: The role of self‐awareness and visual anonymity. European Journal of Social Psychology, 31(2), 177-192.
- Valkenburg, P. M., & Peter, J. (2007). Preadolescents’ and adolescents’ online communication and their closeness to friends. Developmental psychology, 43(2), 267.
- Song, H., Zmyslinski-Seelig, A., Kim, J., Drent, A., Victor, A., Omori, K., & Allen, M. (2014). Does facebook make you lonely?: A meta analysis. Computers in Human Behavior, 36, 446-452.
- Kross, E., Verduyn, P., Demiralp, E., Park, J., Lee, D. S., Lin, N., … & Ybarra, O. (2013). Facebook use predicts declines in subjective well-being in young adults. PloS one, 8(8), e69841.
- Ellison, N. B., Steinfield, C., & Lampe, C. (2007). The benefits of Facebook “friends:” Social capital and college students’ use of online social network sites. Journal of Computer‐Mediated Communication, 12(4), 1143-1168.
- Grieve, R., Indian, M., Witteveen, K., Anne Tolan, G., & Marrington, J. (2013). Face-to-face or Facebook: Can social connectedness be derived online?. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(3), 604-609.
- Hampton, K. N., Sessions, L. F., & Her, E. J. (2011). Core networks, social isolation, and new media: How Internet and mobile phone use is related to network size and diversity. Information, Communication & Society, 14(1), 130-155.
- Tufekci, Z. (2008). Grooming, gossip, Facebook and MySpace: What can we learn about these sites from those who won’t assimilate?. Information, Communication & Society, 11(4), 544-564.
- Eysenbach, G., & Kohler, C. (2004). Health-related searches on the Internet. Journal of the American Medical Association, 291(24), 2946.
- Christensen, H., Griffiths, K. M., & Korten, A. (2002). Web-based cognitive behavior therapy: Analysis of site usage and changes in depression and anxiety scores. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 4(1), e3.
- Christensen, H., Griffiths, K. M., Korten, A. E., Brittliffe, K., & Groves, C. (2004b). A comparison of changes in anxiety and depression symptoms of spontaneous users and trial participants of a cognitive behavior therapy website. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 6(4), e46.
- Andersson, G., Bergstrom, J., Carlbring, P., & Lindefors, N. (2005a). The use of the Internet in the treatment of anxiety disorders. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 18, 73 – 77.