I woke up this morning to the news that heavy internet usage has been linked to depression, with social media as the prime cause. Which is depressing in itself, given that my entire career revolves around the web. But can it really be true that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are the cause of more despair than the fact that Katie Price has made the front page of the press yet again?
In a survey of 1319 people in the UK, Leeds University classed 18 as “internet addicts” who substituted real life social interaction with online chat rooms and social networking sites. Of this 1.2% subset of the population, many were found to be “moderately to severely depressed”. But further reading shows that the 1300 people polled were recruited via no less than social networking sites. So not exactly the most representative sample ever devised then… And given that depression leads to people becoming socially withdrawn and more likely to spend more time on the web anyway, it would appear that this study may have been more ill-conceived than the Nintendo Touch DIC (yes, a real product name c.1995).
It’s also come at a time when the BBC has just started a documentary series entitled ‘The Virtual Revolution’, which if you haven’t seen yet and have an interest in communications and the web, I thoroughly recommend you check out. The first programme took a fascinating look at the origins of the web itself from the 1960s libertarianism San Francisco counter-culture. It presented the original concept of the internet and of, as it has now become known, social media as a great leveller, a tool to empower ordinary people to gain access to knowledge and share it with others. It looked at The Well, formed in the mid 1980s by the lead singer of The Grateful Dead, the first ever social network and the forerunner of the likes of Facebook. The Well infused the web with an ‘anything goes’ attitude and was intended, in a truly hippy manner, to ‘set information free’. I think I’d have liked it!
Fast forward 25 years though, and suddenly Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the web as it is now to “connect humanity”, is the cause of a prozac nation where people have so many friends on Facebook and other networks that it’s all become not only meaningless, but actually the cause of mental illness. If you believe the Leeds University study, that is. But social media and blogging provides a forum for people who would otherwise be locked out of a conversation. It gives people a voice, and a voice that is (currently, at least) free from editorial censorship. It’s a set of positive, enabling and truly astounding technologies.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Please leave a comment…
You can find the first episode of The Virtual Revolution on the BBC’s iPlayer. The rest of the series goes out on BBC2 on Saturday at 8pm, or on BBC HD. Set your Sky+
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