Active internet users assess their psychological well-being more positively than non-users

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With the rise and increasing use of digital technologies and online platforms worldwide, the debate about their potential impact on our psychological well-being is growing. New research from Tilburg University and the University of Oxford shows that active (mobile) internet users are more satisfied with their lives and assess their social and physical well-being more positively than non-users. "The findings contradict prominent narratives about widespread harm to our well-being with increasing use of smartphones and social media."

2.4 million people from 168 countries studied

Despite numerous studies in this area, science is divided on how the use of online technologies relates to users’ well-being. Additionally, research often focuses on a few countries in the Northern Hemisphere, and there is little research focusing on well-being across the lifespan, as the debate on the impact of online technology tends to focus on youth. "What makes this research particularly noteworthy is that we studied approximately 2.4 million people aged 15 and older from 168 countries during the period from 2006 to 2021. We wanted to determine if there were differences in the well-being of people without internet access and active internet users worldwide," says researcher Matti Vuorre from Tilburg University.

The research shows that people with access to (mobile) internet and active internet users, on average, report higher life satisfaction, more positive experiences, fewer negative experiences, and increased social and physical well-being compared to people without internet access. The researchers conducted analyses in tens of thousands of different ways to investigate if there could be other explanations for the differences in well-being, such as income level, education, age, or gender. "Of the nearly 34,000 alternatives, 84.9% of the associations were positive and only 0.4% were negative. This suggests that internet users don’t report greater well-being simply because they are, for example, more financially comfortable than non-users. Nevertheless, we highlight that more work is needed to determine if using the internet causally affects well-being," according Vuorre.

Young female internet users report lower well-being

The research reveals one exception. In a small fraction (4.9%) of thousands of analyses, young women’s (15-24 years old) internet use was associated with lower community well-being. "It is possible that young women who actively use the internet are less likely to like and feel safe where they live. This insight may relate to other research on for example cyberbullying," Vuorre argues. "The findings of this research contradict prominent narratives about widespread harms associated with increased engagement with internet technologies such as smartphones and social media. We should, therefore, be more cautious when considering policy and recommendations surrounding internet technology use," the researchers conclude.