By Tara Kelly
When it comes to mental health, the Internet gets a bad rap. There are countless studies that suggest regular access to the Internet is linked to stress, anxiety and addiction. But before you stop tweeting and toss out your iPhone, it turns out that spending time on the Web could actually be making you happier.
A May 12 report by British researchers from the U.K.'s Chartered Institute of IT (known as BCS) have found a link between Internet access and well-being. But some benefit more than others from tapping into the information superhighway, including those with lower incomes or fewer qualifications, people living in the developing world and, perhaps most surprisingly, women.
Overall, the study found that access to the Internet leads people to feel better about their lives. "Put simply, people with IT access are more satisfied with life even when taking account of income," said Michael Willmott, the social scientist who authored the study, at a press conference. "Our analysis suggests that IT has an enabling and empowering role in people's lives, by increasing their sense of freedom and control, which has a positive impact on well-being or happiness."
Few studies have been done on how Web access directly affects happiness. So researchers from the Trajectory Partnership, a U.K.-based think tank that carried out the study on behalf of the BCS, analyzed data from 35,000 people across the globe who took part in the World Values Survey from 2005 to 2007. Looking at a number of social and economic factors that determine happiness — including gender, age, income and education — the survey showed that Internet use empowers people by increasing their feelings of security, personal freedom and influence.
"The results ... are very plausible," says Carol Graham, chair in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., and author of Happiness Around the World. "If you introduce a technology [in the developing world], whether it is the Internet or the cell phone, that allows people to reduce their very high [constraints] of getting through daily life, it has a tremendous well-being affect."
The survey showed that the correlation between Internet access and happiness does not appear to increase with age, meaning it's not just kids who get something out of surfing the Web. "Whether young or old, we're all social beings, we all have a need for the things IT access facilitates," Paul Flatters, a partner at the Trajectory Partnership, told reporters.
But the researchers weren't expecting to discover that women gain so much from technology, given that it's such a male-dominated industry. Although the report didn't explore why women reap more happiness from Internet access than men do, the report hypothesizes that because women tend to be at the center of their family's social network, the Web is a tool to help them keep their home lives organized. According to the Brookings Institution's Graham, while the findings may surprise initially, they do make sense. "Particularly the [results on] gender and lesser developing countries, if you consider that women in many of these contexts are either isolated or repressed in a way," she says. "IT gives them communication with the outside world, access to networks and so on. Friendships are very important to well-being as well, and one can imagine e-mail and IT being a good way to maintain those, particularly in contexts where telephones and transport are far from ideal or reliable."
The Trajectory Partnership says that the survey's results have motivated them to go further in trying to answer the question of why some people benefit from Web access more than others. "We hope to establish why this works and in particular how is it working with women and disempowered groups," says social scientist Willmott.
With burgeoning interest in finding ways to measure progress beyond GDP — Bhutan has its index for gross national happiness and the U.N. produces a Human Development Report each year — countries could use future studies like this one to help form government policy. The BCS hopes its report will play an important role in shaping how the technology industry develops its products and works toward bridging the digital divide. "The more we can make technology work for humankind, the better," says Willmott.