Depress This

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 September 1998

Maybe the news that the Internet makes people depressed shouldn’t have taken us by surprise. It’s what concerned cyber-reactionaries have been telling us since the beginning: the Internet renders us incapable of forming real relationships, isolates us in an empty electronic simulation, and destroys family bonds. Now, the well-meaning killjoys have some science to back their conjecture.

As front page news stories have announced to the world, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University determined that people who spend even a few hours a week online experience higher levels of depression and loneliness than those who don’t.

What makes the results particularly credible is that the two-year, one-and-a-half million-dollar study’s sponsors - companies like Intel, Hewlett-Packard, and Apple Computer - have a vested interest in proving the opposite. The people promoting the Internet as a way of life (and commerce) for 21st century surely didn’t want their research to demonstrate any significant harmful effects to their coming reign.

I pored over the study for gaps in their reasoning. What sorts of online activities were these test subjects engaging in? I know my own experiences in cyberspace were much more exhilarating when they were predominantly characterized by social interactions like newsgroups, and bulletin boards. When I began struggling through the marketing-heavy pages of the World Wide Web, my joy diminished along with the opportunity to meet living human beings.

But, alas, the people in the study had been utilizing the Internet’s most social and communitarian features: chat rooms, email, and discussion groups. In spite of the truly interpersonal nature of their activities, the subjects experienced an objective increase in depression and loneliness - a small but significant rise of about 1% as measured by standard psychological tests. Subjects also showed marked decrease in the amount of time they spend with their families and size of their non-virtual social circles.

It would probably be too flip to suggest that these 169 otherwise healthy people were merely suffering, as I so often do, with their operating systems, PPP accounts, and dial-up adapters. While I’m sure the recent “upgrades” in Internet technology, increasingly tenuous connections, and unpredictable crashes have led to their own fair share of anxiety and other psychological symptoms, they can’t account for the overwhelming consistency of response that this study indicates. (Still, I’d like to see how may of these people were stuck in the nightmarish world of Windows 95.)

The social scientists who carried out the research have hypothesized that the Internet just doesn’t provide the kinds of deep, emotionally supportive interaction afforded by the face-to-face encounters of real life. They believe that virtual relationships simply can’t substitute for real ones. Perhaps. But why, then, would the addition of electronic relationships into our lives make us more depressed than we were to begin with? Is it just because of the time that online interaction takes away from the rest of our lives, reducing our opportunity to interact with family and friends? If so, why would online interaction be so compelling? Might it offer something that the real world, right now, does not?

Maybe online community simply whets our appetite for the kind of community that so-called “real life” has been denying us for too long. We have marketed and mediated ourselves into extreme isolation relative to what human beings experienced for the past few centuries. Might our experiences online be revealing to us some of what we’ve left behind?

Before we abandon cyberspace, leaving it to those who would turn it into another television-like entertainment device, we’d better take a good hard look at what it is about an open, online exchange that makes us so sad. If the Internet acts upon on us in such a way as to make us less able to socialize and form communities in the real world, then I’ll be the first to hang up my modem.

But I have a nagging suspicion that our online interactions might tell us more about what happened to us before the Internet’s invention than anything it’s done to us since it came into existence. In newsgroups, we learn about the true and appalling nature of local and global politics, and in chat rooms we confront the desperation with which so many people are struggling simply to be heard and understood by someone who cares.

On the Internet, we learn a lot more about the real world than we do from, say, the television shows we have created to distract us from the depressing realities of modern life. In fact, the whole of the entertainment culture might be a form of anesthesia - electronic Prozac that keeps us from experiencing the full weight of our market-driven, highly divided global society. Like the musicians on the deck of the Titanic, our entertainments keep us calm and distracted as the boat sinks into the ocean.

If the Internet gives us temporary glimpse at what’s really going on, we might best take a look - even if it turns out to be depressing.