Bad Science? Bad Reporting? Or the bleedin’ obvious?

I guess that I’m primed for this sort of story at the moment, having spent the last few day’s re-reading Ben Goldacre’s excellent ‘Bad Science’, but when I do read a story like this it makes, figuratively speaking, reach for my revolver.

A study by Leeds university academics of Internet users found that 1.2% of the people in the survey were Internet addicts, and that quite a few of these were depressed.  The study goes on to say that there’s no evidence to suggest that there was a causal link, and that most Internet users have no mental health problems.  So….hold on here….but….what that says to me is that a bunch of academics have spent money in determining that:

  1. Some Internet users are addicted.
  2. Some of those Internet users are depressed.

At the moment I could have told them that from personal experience, because this sort of bollocks really does depress me, an Internet user, thus making me an Internet user who’s also depressed….

 Why am I so peeved?  Let me count the ways, and hopefully encourage you to take this sort of research finding with as many pinches of salt as necessary.  I must say that I’m not getting at the academics involved; I know that they’re hard working folks who have to publish to survive.  Anyway…. the abstract for the paper is here.

Apparently the online questionnaire was filled in by people who’d found it via links on Social networking sites.  Now, having an online questionnaire when you’re looking for Internet users is a good idea.  Having it linked from Social Networking sites which tend to be the preserve of the Internet’s heavy users would appear to me to skew the sampling towards that type of Internet user – not Mrs Miggins from number 46 who uses the Internet to send flowers to her sister.

The group that was determined to be addicted tended to be younger rather than older, and also exhibited statistically significant more depressive attitudes and behaviours than the non-addicted group.  The abstract reports that the Internet Addicted group (IAs) were likely to use more sites that replaced real-life socialising – such as social networks, pornography and gambling.

Let’s just take a step back here.  I think that we could just as easily say, based on this, that there are people within society who’re so cut off from normal social interaction for some reason that they’re depressed and that to relieve this social exclusion they turn to the online world.  And all of a sudden this study becomes much more interesting for me because it starts suggesting that our society has become so broken that people are being excluded from normal social interactions and are relying on the Internet to self-medicate.

The BBC’s headline doesn’t help ‘Internet addiction linked to depression’ – as far as I can see, I can’t see any causal link being suggested in the abstract, or even, in reading the BBC article, on teh BBC website itself.  Sloppy reporting on top of a report that does tend to state the bleedin’ obvious.

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