Time spent online linked to improved wellbeing, study finds

A University of Oxford study of 2.4 million people from 168 countries linked internet use and access to improved wellbeing (iStock/ Getty Images)
A University of Oxford study of 2.4 million people from 168 countries linked internet use and access to improved wellbeing (iStock/ Getty Images)

A global study has challenged previous notions about internet use by associating time online with greater wellbeing.

Researchers at the University of Oxford analysed data from 2.4 million people across 168 countries over 15 years in an effort to understand whether online access and regular use of the internet is a positive or negative factor when it comes to wellbeing.

They found that life satisfaction across all countries was 8.5 per cent higher for those who had access to the internet and their positive experiences were 8.3 per cent higher.

Across more than 33,000 different statistical models and subsets of data, the researchers found that 84.9 per cent of associations between internet connectivity and wellbeing were positive.

“It’s a bit cliche, but extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” said Andrew Przybylski, professor of human behaviour and technology at the Oxford Internet Institute.

“And if we’re to make the online world safer for young people, we just can’t go in guns blazing with strong prior beliefs and one-size-fits-all solutions. We really need to make sure that we’re sensitive to having our minds changed by data, and I really hope that that message comes through instead of just another volley, in another silly debate”

He added that he believed a time would come when people would no longer be worried about social media and internet use in young people because they would be concerned about the next thing that comes along.

Assistant Professor Matti Vuorre from Tilburg University, and previous research associate at Oxford Internet Institute, said: “We were surprised to find a positive correlation between wellbeing and internet use across the majority of the thousands of models we used for our analysis.”

In the study, wellbeing was measured according to eight indicators – life satisfaction, daily negative and positive experiences, two measures of social wellbeing (wellbeing attached to liking where you live and feeling safe there), physical wellbeing, community wellbeing and experiences of purpose.

Factors like education, income and health were also taken into consideration, however, the study did not look at social media use.

“Overall we found that average associations were consistent across internet adoption predictors and wellbeing outcomes, with those who had access to or actively used the internet reporting meaningfully greater wellbeing than those who did not,” Professor Przybylski said.

“We hope our findings bring some greater context to the screen time debate, however further work is still needed in this important area. We urge platform providers to share their detailed data on user behaviour with social scientists working in this field for transparent and independent scientific enquiry, to enable a more comprehensive understanding of internet technologies in our daily lives.”

The findings were published in the American Psychological Association’s Technology, Mind and Behaviour journal on Monday.

Tobias Dienlin, who studies how social media affects well-being at the University of Vienna, told Nature that the study “cannot contribute to the recent debate on whether or not social-media use is harmful, or whether or not smartphones should be banned at schools”.

He added: “Different channels and uses of the Internet have vastly different effects on well-being outcomes.”

Additional reporting from agencies.