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Examining patterns of Internet use for signs of depressive symptoms

What could your browsing behavior reveal about your mental health? Recent research from Missouri University of Science and Technology observed, with permission, the Internet-using habits of 216 undergraduates to study whether certain patterns were associated with depressive symptoms in the students.

The researchers measured the participants' levels of depression at the start of the study. From a Healthland piece:

About 30% had some depressive symptoms like low mood, loss of concentration and excessive feelings of anxiety. This doesn’t mean that a third of college students were clinically depressed; rather, they had at least some of the symptoms associated with the disorder. The finding is in line with data from surveys showing that 10% to 40% of college students have depressive symptoms at one time or another.

Study authors Sriram Chellappan, PhD, and Raghavendra Kotikalapudi, MS, write in a New York Times article that their research didn't involve eavesdropping on personal information in e-mails or conversations, but rather looked broadly at traffic flow and other indicators of how the students used the Web. Chellappan and Kotikalapudi commented on their two major findings, saying:

First, we identified several features of Internet usage that correlated with depression. In other words, we found a trend: in general, the more a participant’s score on the survey indicated depression, the more his or her Internet usage included these (rather technical-sounding) features — for instance, “p2p packets,” which indicate high levels of sharing files (like movies and music).

Our second major discovery was that there were patterns of Internet usage that were statistically high among participants with depressive symptoms compared with those without symptoms. That is, we found indicators: styles of Internet behavior that were signs of depressive people. For example, participants with depressive symptoms tended to engage in very high e-mail usage. This perhaps was to be expected: research by the psychologists Janet Morahan-Martin [PhD] and Phyllis Schumacher [PhD] has shown that frequent checking of e-mail may relate to high levels of anxiety, which itself correlates with depressive symptoms.

The investigators also found that Internet usage of depressive people could include frequent switching among applications and increased consumption of videos and playing of games.

Previously: Recognizing mental health problems through Facebook and Analyzing H1N1 vaccination rates and attitudes using Twitter data
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