Is “What did you surf last night?” akin to a metaphysical query? Is your use of the internet no different from how you introspect and the answers you get from it?
Scientific research has once again stretched it, although now it concerns what we do every day. I am not dismissing the possibility, but the fact that it might be employed as a diagnostic tool for serious mental health.
This is not the first time, but a more recent one. A report in The Scientific American states:
Consider two questions. First: Who are you? What makes you different from your peers, in terms of the things you buy, the clothes you wear, and the car you drive (or refuse to)? What makes you unique in terms of your basic psychological make-up – the part of you that makes you do the things you do, say the things you say, and feel the things you feel? And the second question: How do you use the internet? Although these questions may seem unrelated, they’re not.
And there begins the analogy. ‘Who are you’ is about identity, even in superficial terms of being identified as separate from another. There will be an overlap, such as people who prefer driving SUVs or wearing red lipstick as a statement. The SUV and the red lipstick might themselves be identified as different in, say, mileage, interiors, sturdiness and varied shades of red and varied types of lips. The things we do or say in a certain manner may or may not constitute psychological makeup; they might well be behavioural, and dependent on factors such as heredity, habits learned in childhood, or ‘borrowed’ from observation.
However, do we read books or listen to music in a standard fashion? These could reveal a few things about us. The internet is an on tap medium. We are logged in, we look for what we want, we chance upon material – it is fairly automated.
Therefore, it is distressing that the research believes that besides the almost Linda Goodman-like predictions of “Spending a lot of late nights playing high stakes internet poker? Chances are you are a risk taker”, it can predict how depressive you are. Going by the examples given, the person playing high stakes might just be a drunken gambler, or someone who is self-destructive and has forgotten to will his wealth to his cat. If you post videos of yourself, depending on the content, it could mean that you enjoy sharing or you like exhibiting. We do such things without the internet.
It is not possible to completely ignore factors such as how much and how often you email or whether we multi-task reveals about us. But it would be facile to use this as a yardstick for we multitask outside the internet and how we reach out to people in words could also be indicators. To make internet habits into a laboratory test negates its role as just another easy access machine.
200 volunteers were asked to fill out a survey about “recent affective experiences”. They did not know that “a well-known measure of depression—the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression (CES-D) scale—was embedded within this survey”.
There is the question of ethics here, and there is the question about how such an embedded measuring device can accurately predict a psychological state when it uses parameters that are extraneous.
Quickly switching between websites may reflect anhedonia (a decreased ability to experience emotions), as people desperately seek for emotional stimulation. Similarly, excessive emailing and chatting may signify a relative lack of strong face-to-face relationships, as people strive to maintain contact either with faraway friends or new people met online.
These cannot be termed untrue, but are they the best indicators? How do they diagnose depression when it could be behaviour on a particular day? I’d say that not switching websites and sticking to one or two could also mean seeking emotional stimulation from those limited sources. People lead life at a hurried pace and information seeking is part of many professions, therefore the shifting movement from one site to another.
The same applies to email and chatting. You often email people who are not accessible – due to physical distance or lack of time. Not everything needs to be said face-to-face. Also, many people chat with those they do know or have got to know. If it is strangers, then do we not strike up conversations with people in the park, the street, salespersons, cabbies, receptionists?
I find it depressing (yes) to read that the study claims it has things in order:
Recent estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that around 10 percent of adults in the United States currently suffer from clinical depression—depression that consists of symptoms such as disruptions in eating, sleeping, and concentration patterns, lack of interest in daily activities, and consistently feeling like a failure.
If people truly feel like a failure, they might not have the energy to get on the internet at all, for they’d see tremendous expressions of vanity on display. The internet is like the proverbial harlot that has power without responsibility.
Addiction to the internet – like any other addiction, and love too – does cause these symptoms. What is happening now is that the same multitasking that is being seen as one of the pointers of depression is used by researchers to ferret out different aspects of ‘abnormality’. It is quite common for people to say they are “severely depressed”. It does not take long for them to end up in some ward as clinical cases because they believe they are ill for uploading videos of themselves. It is pertinent to point out that the activity performed could be way more harmful than its blurred version.
Such studies end up creating paranoia about paranoia.