Internet usage patterns may signal depression, study finds

Researchers hope that discovered correlations will lead to software tools that will help identify users' symptoms of depression.

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The amount and type of online activity Internet users exhibit may be indicators of depression, findings a group of researchers hopes will lead to software tools to help identify depressive behavior.

People who showed symptoms of depression tended to use the Internet differently than those who didn't show signs of depression, researchers said in a New York Times opinion piece today. Some of that behavior included obsessively checking e-mail, watching lots of videos, and switching frequently among multiple apps, according to a new study by researchers from the Missouri University of Science and Technology.

The researchers asked 216 college students to complete a questionnaire to determine whether they were depressed, then asked the school's information technology department to examine how the students spent their time on the Internet.

"This didn't mean snooping on what the students were looking at or whom they were e-mailing; it merely meant monitoring how they were using the Internet -- information about traffic flow that the university customarily collects for troubleshooting network connections and such," the researchers said.

They then conducted a statistical analysis of the depression scores and Internet usage patterns. Researchers found a correlation between high depression scores and greater instances of sharing files such as music and movies.

Another finding was that participants with depression symptoms tended to engage in high e-mail usage, although the researchers noted that previous research has shown that frequent e-mail checking may relate to high levels of anxiety.

"Earlier studies have looked into the relationship between Internet usage and depression, but ours is thought to be the first to use actual Internet data, collected anonymously and unobtrusively, rather than student-completed surveys about Internet usage, which are less reliable," the researchers said.

The hope is that this data can be used to develop software that can be installed on PCs and mobile devices to monitor Internet usage and alert users if usage patterns suggest symptoms of depression, researchers said.

"This would not replace the function of mental health professionals, but it could be a cost-effective way to prompt people to seek medical help early," they said. "It might also be a tool for parents to monitor the mood-related Internet usage patterns of their children."

The study is expected to be published soon in an upcoming issue of IEEE Technology and Society Magazine.