The Great Depression

Does the Net really bum you out?

I first became severely depressed during my junior year in college, following the painful end of an even more painful relationship. I won't inflict the details on you, but in brief, my breakdown involved copious amounts of alcohol, razorblades, and hysterical 3 a.m. episodes. Ultimately, a combination of therapy and drugs pulled me over the worst of it, but I still struggle intermittently with bouts of mild depression.I tell you this not to dip my beak in the well of public confession, nor to indulge in a little exhibitionism in black and white, but to impress upon you the personal impact a recent psychological study had on me: a team at Carnegie Mellon University claims it has established a link between Internet use and depression-alarming news for someone who, like me, spends up to 10 hours per day online.The two-year, $1.5 million study apparently indicates that people who spend even a few hours per week online experience greater levels of depression and loneliness than those who spend less time on the Internet. The researchers hypothesize that since using the Internet led to a decrease in social interaction among participants, Netizens may be using virtual relationships to inadequately replace real-life relationships, leading to greater feelings of isolation and depression.The media, of course, have pounced gleefully upon these findings, leading to a spate of stories with headlines like "Study Finds [the Internet] May Sap Your Soul" and "More Internet Use Is More Depressing." Netizens reacted equally violently in the opposite direction. One poster on the alt.angst newsgroup dismissed the study as "a tale told by newbies, about newbies, signifying nothing," and residents of the Well, a veteran online community, got real cranky at the suggestion that their bonds were inadequate to the task of supporting one another. Comparisons were drawn to another Carnegie Mellon study, the infamous Rimm study, which received enormous publicity for suggesting cyberspace was awash in pornography, even though it was riddled with fatal methodological flaws. A number of Netizens have suggested this study is flawed as well. Critics pointed to the small number of participants in the study (169), the fact that measurements of happiness were taken only at the beginning and the end of the two-year study, and the fact that the researchers chose to study people who had never been online before. But UC Irvine professor Alladi Venkatesh, who does research on the Internet with UCI's Center for Research on Information Technology and Organizations, called the Carnegie Mellon report "a wonderful, honest study," saying that much of the criticism stems from people misunderstanding its parameters and purpose. Folks on the Net have never liked accusations that they're not a real community. I can't speak for them, having never been into the whole chat-room/discussion-group/support-group thing; the few times I stumbled into the alt.support.depression newsgroup, I found the self-pity and bad poetry worse than the disease. But researchers may be ignoring a whole other aspect of the Internet: the fact that it's the greatest informational resource the world has ever known.I've been fighting depression for eight years; I've been online for six. And (as I'm sure the Carnegie Mellon researchers would approve) most of my emotional support has come not from people online but from family and friends: from the male friend who took me home with him and held me (platonically) all night when I was borderline suicidal; to my parents, who helped me pay for therapy; to my husband, whose patience with my mood swings and crying jags has been well-nigh saint-like. But when I needed solid information, I turned to the Internet. It was there that I found diagnostic tests when I was worried that I was sliding back into clinical depression. It was there that I discovered I suffer from dysthemia, a specific form of low-grade, persistent depression. When I began having panic attacks and mild agoraphobia (a common side effect of depression), I realized what they were only after I looked on the Internet; armed with that information, I went to my doctor and got treatment. About a year ago, after a move threw me back into a major depressive episode, I found information about St. John's Wort online and began taking the herb with tremendous results; it's been months since I've burst into tears for no reason.Understand that I'm not advocating using the Internet for self-treatment or self-medication. But a major problem with depression is that people often don't get treated for it-either because they don't realize they're depressed or because they don't know it's fixable. The Internet helped me realize what was wrong with me, and the knowledge that other people suffered from the same problems and that the techniques existed to fix it has kept those razorblades away from my wrists for years.And just because I'm praising the informational side of the Internet doesn't mean I'm dissing the virtual-community aspect of it, either. The friend who many years ago helped me survive my nadir just became a father; I've seen pictures of his new son on the Web. My parents, hundreds of miles away, read my columns every week on the OC Weekly site. And if I get lonely during the day, I can fire up the computer and look in on my husband's office over his company's Web cam.Whenever something like this Carnegie Mellon study or the Rimm study comes out, there's a tendency among devoted Net users to get real defensive. And, given the mainstream media's rich enjoyment of anything that casts the Internet in a bad light, their reaction is somewhat justified. But it's possible to avoid that knee-jerk response. It's possible to point out that there's more than one aspect to the Internet, and people use it for different things, and different people derive different things from it. It's not all chronically lonely people logging on to try to eke out some semblance of a social life. And sometimes, depressed people get less depressed after using the Internet. Like me.Bond with Wyn at whilty@sprynet.com

 
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