Contrary to yesterday’s front pages, the Internet doesn’t cause depression. However, half-baked, scaremongering research, uncritically disseminated all over the newspapers, does rather get me down.
How is it half-baked? Let me count the ways. The Leeds University researchers didn’t interview a randomly chosen, representative sample of the population. ‘Internet addiction’ isn’t a recognised medical condition. And the researchers based their conclusions about internet addicts being depressed on answers from just 18 people. For a fuller dissection of the paper’s flaws, see ‘How reliable are the findings?’ in my Guardian story.
So far, so average. But my heart really sank when I saw the press release for this study. It cited, without good reason, a very sad cluster of teenage deaths from south Wales which occurred over the period of a year. These deaths have been investigated. Initial reports of internet suicide pacts were found to be without foundation. So why was this being dragged up by an academic press release?
The research paper itself cites the south Wales deaths. It says: ‘A recent spate of suicides amongst teenagers and young adults in South Wales, UK, has led to questions being raised in the media about the extent to which online communities foster suicidal tendencies in young people.’
Indeed. Questions in the media, found to be without foundation. This type of scaremongering has no place in academic research.
Journalists are warned to be very careful about how we report suicide, or issues relating to suicide. Indeed, there are official guidelines endorsed by the National Union of Journalists. They are there for a reason – media reports can and do prompt copycat suicidal attempts. Maybe academic institutions should adopt similar standards before using suicides to sex up their studies.
Depression is a serious illness. The BMJ Group’s guide to depression is available free on the Guardian website. Anyone with suicidal thoughts or feelings can contact The Samaritans online or by telephone.