Few people argue the general consensus that the internet (and your internet-enabled device of choice) is pretty great. But you’d also be hard-pressed to find somebody who didn’t have anecdotal evidence of some of its less pleasant effects. Our favorite gadgets can hurt our bodies and our health in numerous ways. It’s pretty easy to find yourself addicted to your smartphone and feeling palpable anxiety if you lose track of your device. We can accidentally use Facebook so extensively that it threatens our relationships with others. And bad gadget habits can lead to poor sleep patterns, bad posture, and even vision problems.
Those problems are all bad, but you can typically avoid them by using your favorite gadgets and apps in moderation (and by regularly reflecting on your habits and usage). A problem that’s more difficult to address, however, is the way that the internet can make you sad. Most of us won’t dispute the assertion that there are tons of miserable people online — but have you ever considered the notion that it may be the internet that’s making us depressed? Read on to check out some of the reasons why the internet is making you sad. Just don’t blame us if you find yourself trying to dump your Facebook account once you read the story.
1. Overusing your favorite gadgets can make you fatigued, stressed, and depressed
David Volpi reported for The Huffington Post that researchers at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden found that heavy computer and cellphone use “can be linked to an increase in stress, sleep disorders and depressive symptoms in young adults.” People who make themselves constantly accessible via their phones were the most likely to report mental health issues. And regular, late-night computer use was associated with sleep disorders, stress, and depressive symptoms.
We already know that the blue light emitted by television and computer screens affects melatonin production and throws off our circadian rhythms. This interrupts or prevents deep, restorative sleep, and results in an increase in stress and depressive symptoms. The upshot is that overusing technology can have very real and very serious effects on our mental and physical health — which is why you owe it to yourself to make sure that your internet usage is staying within healthy limits.
2. The internet gives you “popcorn brain,” which makes everything offline seem less interesting
Elizabeth Cohen reported a few years ago for CNN that researchers were beginning to worry “that life online is giving us what researcher, David Levy, calls ‘popcorn brain’ — a brain so accustomed to the constant stimulation of electronic multitasking that we’re unfit for life offline, where things pop at a much slower pace.” The human brain is wired to crave the instant gratification, the fast pace, and the unpredictability of the internet and the apps and services we use on our computers and smartphones.
The constant stimulation can activate dopamine cells in the nucleus accumbens, a main pleasure center of the brain. And with enough internet usage, the structure of your brain can actually change. The problem is that when you set down your phone or shut your laptop, you’ll have trouble adjusting to the slower pace of the real world. Your boredom or anxiety could lead you to spend more and more time on the internet, and we all know that spending too much time online is a recipe for problems with our mood and our relationships — which leads us to our next point.
3. If you use the internet excessively, you may be depressed
Adam Gabbatt reported years ago for The Guardian that researchers had found that “internet addicts are more likely to be depressed than non-addicted users.” Does that mean the internet is actually the cause of their depression? Not necessarily. But it does demonstrate that turning to the internet (and its treasure trove of cat videos and dumb Reddit threads) may not be the most effective way to cheer yourself up.
Gabbatt reported that Leeds University researchers claim that “excessive internet use is associated with depression, but what we don’t know is which comes first – are depressed people drawn to the internet or does the internet cause depression?” They found that internet addicts had a higher incidence of moderate to severe depression than non-addicts. They also found that addicts spent a higher proportion of their time online browsing sexually gratifying websites, online gaming sites, and online communities. The upshot is that over-engaging in websites as a replacement for “normal social function” may be linked to psychological disorders like depression and addiction.
4. Information overload can make you indecisive, lead you to make bad decisions, and can stress you out
There’s a huge amount of information available on the internet. So much, in fact, that dealing with it all can have negative effects on your mental state and your mood. Margarita Tartakovsky reports for Psych Central that according to psychologist Lucy Jo Palladino, “Information or cognitive overload can lead to indecisiveness, bad decisions and stress.” When you have too much information to deal with, you may get so overwhelmed that you can’t make a decision or can’t figure out how to move forward.
You may even feel like you don’t have any control, which can have a detrimental effect on your mood. It’s easy to see how information overload could, in fact, make you feel even more sad about the situation or problem for which you were trying to find a solution in the first place. There are, of course, plenty of strategies to deal with information overload. But if you’re dealing with a situation that’s already making you sad, you may want to be especially careful about what you seek out online.
5. Checking your smartphone constantly is an ineffective way to deal with negative moods
Carolyn Gregoire reports for The Huffington Post that according to recent Baylor University research, people who check their phones constantly may do so in an attempt to alleviate negative moods. The researchers wrote, “Much like a variety of substance addictions, cell phone addiction may be an attempt at mood repair.” They note, “Incessant checking of emails, sending texts, tweeting, and surfing the web may act as pacifiers for the unstable individual distracting him or herself from the worries of the day and providing solace, albeit temporarily, from such concerns.”
While you may temporarily feel a little bit better by distracting yourself with your Instagram feed or a fun Google search, the internet has little capability to really lift your mood for anything more than a short period of time. And you probably don’t need us to tell you that Facebook can’t fix whatever circumstances in your life are causing you to feel down in the first place. The researchers found that people who use their smartphones more frequently are more prone to moodiness, materialism, and temperamental behavior. They’re also less able to focus their attention on a task — a tendency which in itself has been associated with unhappy moods.
6. Using Facebook to compare yourself to others can make you envious, and then sad
It should come as a surprise to exactly zero regular users of Facebook that the social network can make you feel a little sad. But Mihir Patkar reports for MakeUseOf that behaviorists and social scientists are now narrowing down the root cause of “Facebook’s potential as a trigger for depressive symptoms.” A number of studies agree that boastful posts and the envy they engender are a major factor. People have the tendency to lie on the internet, and that makes us forget that others in our networks have their own problems and failures, too.
If you use Facebook to check up on how well everybody else is doing, you may feel envious, and then depressed. “Social comparison” is a crucial part of the equation. Multiple studies agree that it goes hand-in-hand with depressed feelings and time spent on Facebook. When you check up on the Facebook profile of someone you considered your peer, but then judge that they’re doing better than you, that also elicits envy. Even if you think you have a positive outlook, be aware that you’re probably comparing yourself to your friends, and realize that everybody is posting their most positive experiences and accomplishments.
7. Your internet usage may change when you’re depressed — which may just reinforce the same patterns of behavior
Research on how your internet usage changes when you’re depressed may not explain why the internet is making you sad, but it does provide some interesting insight into how you may use the internet when you’re depressed. Sriram Chellappan and Raghavendra Kotikalapudi reported for The New York Times that according to their research, people “who showed signs of depression tended to use the Internet differently from those who showed no symptoms of depression.” People who were depressed were more likely to download movie and music files. They tended to engage in very high email usage (which coincides with research showing that frequent email checking may relate to high levels of anxiety).
Additionally, they tended to frequently switch among applications, which could indicate difficulty concentrating (which is a depressive symptom in itself). Other characteristic features of depressive internet behavior included increased amounts of video watching, gaming, and chatting. Avoiding internet-related activities that are correlated with depression likely won’t make you happier. But the study does make you realize that turning to the internet probably isn’t helping you deal with your mood, whether you’re depressed or are just having an off day.
8. The internet may make you sad, but it can also improve your mood — at least for a little while
Chris Morris-Lent for Gawker makes an elegant case for the many ways in which the internet causes depression. He explains, “The internet is a miserable place, and, as always, it raises questions: If our fictional selves are worse, why do we bother participating at all? And what kind of person is at his finest when staring at a screen?” But in exploring the ways in which consuming and creating content on the internet will make you sad, he ultimately comes to this conclusion: “The internet creates the symptoms of depression, but it can also treat them.”
Morris-Lent posits, “Games, health, finance, news, and commercial articles together can deaden depression almost as much as they bring it about. I lived that reality for two and a half years, while on antidepressants. The internet is depressing, but it is also antidepressing.” Ultimately, preserving and protecting your mental health would likely be easier without the internet to contend with. But where would the fun be in that?