Heaven knows I’m miserable now

Many of us with teenage children will, at one time or another, have been concerned about the amount of time that they spend surfing the internet, silently worrying about the possible detrimental effects that too much time on the computer might have on their behaviour.

This year, many of our darkest suspicions were confirmed when Leeds University psychologists revealed the results of a study of internet use and depression levels of more than 1,300 people aged 16-51. They found that people who spend a lot of time browsing the internet are more likely to show depressive symptoms.

The researchers, led by Dr Catriona Morrison from Leeds University, discovered that some of these users had developed a compulsive internet habit, replacing real-world social interaction with online chat rooms and social networking sites – a type of addictive surfing that can have a serious impact on mental health.

It’s only a small percentage of the population, thank goodness. In her study, for example, just 1.2 per cent of the people evaluated were classed as being internet addicted, but, sadly, the average age of the addicted group was a mere 21.

Nevertheless, Dr Morrison said that this small subset of the population find it hard to control how much time they spend online, to the point where it interferes with their daily activities.

While the research confirms many parents’ worries, it doesn’t actually help them identify whether their own children have actually become depressed by excessive use of the internet.

But help is at hand, thanks to researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev who have now created a software program that can detect such depression in blogs and online texts by identifying language that can indicate the writer’s psychological state.

Developed by a team headed by Associate Professor Yair Neuman, the software was used to scan more than 300,000 English language blogs that were posted to mental-health websites.

The program identified what it perceived to be the 100 most depressed and 100 least depressed bloggers. A panel of four clinical psychologists reviewed the samples and concluded that there was a 78 per cent correlation between the computer’s findings and the panel’s.

The software itself finds depressive content hidden in language that did not mention the obvious terms such as depression or suicide, instead spotting words that express various emotions, such as colours that the writer employs to metaphorically describe certain situations. Words like ‘black’ combined with other terms that describe symptoms of depression, such as sleep deprivation or loneliness, are recognised by the software as depressive texts.

One day perhaps, the use of such software might allow parents to scan their children’s very own social networking pages to find out whether their blogs indicate that they are truly depressed individuals, or simply fond of the music of Morrissey and Marr.

Sadly though, while Dr Morrison’s research indicates that excessive internet use is associated with depression, and Dr Neuman’s work might allow depressed folks to be identified, further work clearly needs to be done to tell whether depressed people are drawn to the internet or whether the internet is the cause of their depression.

One thing’s for certain though. I know only too well how much time I spend on the internet, and it’s my guess that it’s way more than the average. So I, for one, am hoping that Dr Neuman’s software is never used by my own immediate superiors to evaluate any of my very own editorial ramblings. Heaven knows what they might find.

Dave Wilson
Editor, Electronicstalk

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