Pathologizing the Internet: File-sharing as a sign of depression?

In June this year, a study by Missouri U of Science and Technology researchers scored some impressive headlines in the NY Times, the NY Post, and elsewhere: “How depressives surf the web.” The rather less catchy title of the study itself is “Associating Depressive Symptoms in College Students with Internet Usage Using Real Internet Data.” The Times article, by the study’s own authors, does a good, even exemplary job of translating the study itself into plain language. But in both its specialist and general-audience forms, the study makes some troubling claims and suggests some insidious implications.

The study’s two main claims are: 1) “we identified several features of Internet usage that correlated with depression”; and 2) “there were patterns of Internet usage that were statistically high among participants with depressive symptoms.” One specific feature of Internet use the study correlates with depression is, symptomatically, file-sharing:

The correlation observed between peer-to-peer usage and depressive symptoms is intuitive. Sharing files like music, movies, photos etc. are primary reasons for using peer-to-peer services. Students are prone to be addicted to such kinds of content, which may explain this trend. (5)

A claim like this explains the corporate media’s uptake of the study. This claim pathologizes file-sharing, thus legitimizing Big Content’s persistent efforts to criminalize it tout court; it adds to the close and evidence-based associations among depression, anxiety, and addiction the practices of digital copying and sharing. Sharing: it is now a symptom of addiction, not a fundamentally human trait. And what does it mean for students – or anyone – to be “addicted” to cultural products like music and movies? Inside the study’s apparently modest and limited claim is a vicious Utilitarian assumption, that cultural products are surplus to requirements, useless subjects, addictive – without redeeming social value. Conversely, the Culture Industry thesis would argue the institutional capitalist basis for this addiction in the Big Content industries themselves, industries that actively and sometimes openly cultivate and exploit addictive behaviours via advertising, via serialization, via the rapid and high-volume turnover of products, via the commodity fetishism of consumerist ideology in general.

The study goes on to make similarly pathologizing claims for other forms of Internet use, like e-mail and IRC.

Frequent email checking may relate with high levels of anxiety, which in-turn [sic] correlates with depressive symptoms. (5)

Of course, frequent e-mail checking also relates to the demands increasingly placed on postindustrial labour to be on call 24/7, via applications and, in particular, mobile devices designed precisely to encourage and stimulate frequent e-mail checking. If you have a mobile device – say, an iOS device – see how long it takes you to find the settings for e-mail notification – and then take careful note of how the defaults are set: that is, for maximal “push” notification. The very vocabulary of mobile apps openly identifies the role of the app (and by extension its programmer) as a pusher, in case you’re looking for one to god-damn, for all the e-mail you’ve got to smoke through.

So while I don’t question the basic empirical findings here, I do see significant limitations in the study’s methodology, and pernicious implications in its claims. Its methodology could well stand to absorb more of McLuhan’s message: that our technologies, our media, work us over completely, thus rendering the cause-effect relationship between Internet use and psychological health a much more complex chicken-and-egg problem. To identify (however tentatively) features and patterns of Internet use as symptoms of depression is to disregard, even mystify, the formidable planning, design, and market-share calculations that go into making p2p, e-mail, IRC, and other prevalent Internet apps and tools as “addictive” as possible. Lacking an economic or institutional analysis, the study becomes legible as a market instrument.

The implications of this study’s claims serve not only the Big Content lobby, by pathologizing file-sharing, but also the Big Pharma industry, which – as other studies have persuasively argued – is at least as busy designing new disorders to treat as it is invested in actually alleviating extant ones (Cooke 71). In a broader theoretical context, this study (like so many others) makes scientific claims to bolster entrenched, dominant ideologies, in particular the privileging of speech over writing, embodied presence over technological mediation, that deconstruction has so thoroughly documented and critiqued. The authors claim, for instance:

Excess online chatting can affect the psychology of young people, and can also cause social isolation and loneliness in the real world, potentially leading to depressive symptoms. (5)

Reinforcing this line between the virtual and the real, a line that it is the perennial historical function of new media to transgress and redraw, the study leverages this line to propose new strategies for detecting – and intervening in the lives of – depressives in the digital milieu (with a commitment to respecting the user’s privacy, of course). Now, don’t get me wrong – I know depression is a real and enormous social problem, among students no less so than among the general population; I have experienced it among friends and family and had at least one bout of it myself. And I know that some Internet uses are symptomatic of addictive disorders. But if frequent e-mail checking and file-sharing are signs of depression, then wouldn’t a sizeable majority of postindustrial workers be diagnosable as depressives? And if so, how conveniently would that mass diagnosis serve certain corporate interests?

The issue here is this study’s unexamined ideological premises, its reductive methodology – which reads into statistical findings more context that seems defensible, while taking many Internet uses out of their institutional and economic contexts – and consequently the conclusions, which lend scientific authority to the profit-motivated, anti-public political and media campaigns of Big Content and Big Pharma, and lend further fuel to the long-burning signal fires that always flare up against new ways to send signals.

Works Cited

Chellappan, Sriram and Raghavendra Kotikalapudi. “Associating Depressive Symptoms in College Students with Internet Usage Using Real Internet Data.” IEEE Technology and Society 2012 [forthcoming]

—. “How depressives surf the web.” New York Times 15 Jun. 2012

Cooke, Grayson. “Technics and the human at the zero hour: Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.” Studies in Canadian Literature 31.2 (2006): 63-83

2 responses to “Pathologizing the Internet: File-sharing as a sign of depression?

  1. Does the study mention anything about the people using the internet to compensate for lack of access to mental health care, and to health care in general? Sites like WebMD (an advertising venue for Big Pharma) see the traffic they do because people don’t have a doctor, can’t get to the doctor, or can’t go to the doctor without facing stigma or misunderstanding (and in the US because they can’t pay for the doctor). Crisis lines are also available online ( & and there are online social groups for people with mental health disabilities that make it difficult or impossible to leave the house.
    It reminds me of studies that tie social media use to poor academic performance, without ever mentioning cuts to public funding or disparities in access to education — whether there is a connection or not, it seems to obscure the need to repair structural inequalities and the destruction of the public sector.

  2. I read the paper. It claims to be generalizable, but 216 undergraduates were recruited. That means it’s not a random sample. Also, are undergraduate students representative?

    No effort seems to have been made to distinguish between participants, which draws from a general psychology course, an operating systems course, and a data structures course. The only class taken by students from all departments is the general psychology course. So, the study, in addition to being about American undergraduate students, is mainly concerned with computer science folk. I’m also not sure that it’s helpful to add that the general psychology course was taken by “students from all departments.” Is that supposed to make it more representative? I bet if we looked at those students there would be some patterns which aren’t addressed in the study. It’s unlikely that every department was represented equally.

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