Nautilus Members enjoy an ad-free experience. or Join now .

If we heeded most of the advice we hear about the internet, we might never go online again. We’re told digital spaces make us depressed and anxious—maybe even a little dumb. They keep us siloed off in self-reinforcing tribes that heighten our biases and make us angry at one another. The constant glow of our phone screens interrupts our sleep patterns and hypnotizes us during daylight with a constant barrage of push notifications and endless possibilities for distraction—most of it making us feel much worse about ourselves. Our children, in particular, risk mental illness and a new form of addiction. An entire genre of literature has emerged around these warnings, urging us to save ourselves and unplug.

But is this just a giant moral panic, whose effects have been largely overblown? 

Nautilus Members enjoy an ad-free experience. Log in or Join now .

We might look for clues in a new global study from Oxford University that spanned 16 years and surveyed 2.4 million people 15 and older in 168 countries. The findings suggest that, on average, across countries and demographics—in the study group—internet access and use may actually be positively associated with key measures of health and happiness, including sense of purpose, life satisfaction, and social well-being. Published last month in Technology, Mind, and Behavior, the study offers something of a counterpoint in the raging discourse around the negative impacts of digital media.

“I was surprised to find how consistent the finding—that those with internet access report greater well-being than those without—was across the thousands of different ways in which we analyzed the data,” says Matti Vuorre, a psychology researcher at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, where his focus is digital technologies and online environments. Vuorre, who responded to questions over email, co-authored the study with Andrew Przybylski, a psychologist at the University of Oxford who studies the impacts of online social media and video games on mental health. The researchers emphasize that their findings don’t point to the internet causing people to have greater well-being, just that the two seem to be, on average, loosely linked.

Nautilus Members enjoy an ad-free experience. Log in or Join now .

Like running water or electricity, the internet ensures our general sense of security.

To conduct their study, Vuorre and Przybylski mined Gallup World Poll data collected between 2006 and 2022 on individuals’ access to the internet, whether they had used the internet over the previous week, and eight measures of self-reported well-being: life satisfaction, daily negative and positive experiences, two indices of social well-being, physical well-being, community well-being, and experiences of purpose. Of course those with internet access might be expected to already have more resources, freedoms, and social supports that would likely increase happiness and well-being—internet or no. But to try to shore up their findings, the researchers controlled for  numerous factors that might affect internet use and welfare, such as income level, employment status, education level, and health problems, also collected from Gallup data.

They found that people who had access to the internet or reported using it over the past seven days on average scored modestly higher on measures of life satisfaction, positive experiences, and contentment with their social life, compared to people who lacked internet. Internet users also reported lower scores in physical pain, worry, sadness, stress, or anger than individuals who did not have access. The researchers ran the data through countless models to see if they could find hidden factors that would alter the relationship between the internet and well-being, and found that the overwhelming majority of these models showed positive associations.

Vuorre says the global scope, vast data set, and 16-year time frame for the study afforded himself and Przybylski a more zoomed-out perspective than previous studies, where researchers have tended to focus primarily on young people living in the U.S. and Europe. Such studies, Vuorre argues, disregard the global reach of the internet and the impacts it might have on groups that are just beginning to adopt it, as well as on adult populations.

Nautilus Members enjoy an ad-free experience. Log in or Join now .

The one notable place the researchers identified a negative relationship between internet use and well-being was among young women aged 15 to 24, and these associations were specific to community well-being. Young women who reported using the internet within the previous week were, on average, less happy with the places they lived, compared to those who hadn’t used the internet.

It’s possible, of course, that those who are less happy with where they live may seek to spend more time online—the feelings of being ill at ease preceding the engagement with the internet, rather than the other way around, says Vuorre. But he urges other researchers to take up the question.

For social psychologist Jonathan Haidt—whose recent bestseller The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness argues for adolescents to unplug—the panoramic view the study provides is its main, though perhaps limited—contribution to the discussion of how the internet makes us feel. In a post on X responding to the study’s publication, Haidt wrote that the internet, like running water or electricity, has become, for a great many of us, a part of the infrastructure that ensures our general sense of security. You’re bound to feel a little better knowing that you have access.

But it’s the intensity of internet use—not access—that can become problematic, says Haidt’s lead researcher, Zach Rausch, and that’s one variable the Oxford study overlooked. “There are a host of risks and harms that come from spending five-plus hours a day on smartphones and social media platforms that are unrelated to simply having access to the internet,” says Rausch in an interview. “The problem is not access to the internet. The problem is giving children and adolescents unfettered access to a few social media platforms that are designed with advertisers—and not their users’—well-being in mind.”

Nautilus Members enjoy an ad-free experience. Log in or Join now .

A recent story in The New York Times that describes a remote village in the Amazon that was just connected to the internet through SpaceX’s StarLink seems to underscore this point. “When it arrived everyone was happy,” one elderly woman from the village says, “but now things have gotten worse.” Some people in the village soon began to spend all their time on their phones, to the detriment of responsibilities like hunting, fishing, or planting food. Village leaders decided to limit the hours that the internet was connected to early mornings, evenings, and Sundays. But still, the positive effects were balanced by negative ones. Connection to the internet meant quicker help in emergencies and tools to educate children. It also meant many kids were spending hours playing violent video games and watching pornography—with a subsequent adoption of more sexually aggressive behavior among some young men—as well as the breakdown of in-person conversation.

Tobias Dienlin, a professor at the University of Vienna who studies how social media affects well-being, told me that the Oxford study wasn’t really designed to measure how things like Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, and other social media sites affect our mental health. “The study cannot contribute to the recent debate on whether or not social media use is harmful, or whether or not smartphones should be banned at schools,” he told me. “Different channels and uses of the internet have vastly different effects on well-being outcomes.”

Nonetheless, Dienlin cautiously lauded the research as one effort that “can help inform policy work in that increasing internet accessibility could perhaps increase well-being and might not cause mental health problems” in every eventuality—a result he says is consistent with numerous other scholarly studies on how the internet impacts well-being. “As a media scholar, I’m not that much surprised, as the empirical literature often rather finds small to non-existent effects [on well-being], contrary to what is discussed in the public discourse and/or popular scientific literature,” he told me.

In fact, a report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, released last year, concluded that links between social media and poor mental health are weak in the existing literature and that this is likely because, on balance, it promotes experiences that are both good and bad.

Nautilus Members enjoy an ad-free experience. Log in or Join now .

So, do we need to worry? For better or worse, the internet is, as Haidt says, as ubiquitous as plumbing. As with so many things, it’s what we do with it that can determine whether it soothes us—or scalds us.

Lead image: Paper Trident / Shutterstock

close-icon Enjoy unlimited Nautilus articles, ad-free, for less than $5/month. Join now

! There is not an active subscription associated with that email address.

Join to continue reading.

You’ve read your 2 free articles this month. Access unlimited ad-free stories, including this one, by becoming a Nautilus member.

! There is not an active subscription associated with that email address.

This is your last free article.

Don’t limit your curiosity. Access unlimited ad-free stories like this one, and support independent journalism, by becoming a Nautilus member.