The Internet Knows You’re Depressed, but Can It Help You?

Depressive people tend to use the Internet differently than mentally healthy types, but it's not clear whether their pattern of use helps or exacerbates their mood.

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How do depressed people behave online? According to a new study of college students with depressive symptoms — recently described by its authors in the New York Times — they compulsively check email, watch many videos, spend a lot of time playing games and chatting, and frequently switch back and forth between applications.

With permission, the authors tracked the Internet use patterns of 216 undergrads at the Missouri University of Science and Technology for a month. They measured their levels of depression at the start of the study.

About 30% had some depressive symptoms like low mood, loss of concentration and excessive feelings of anxiety. This doesn’t mean that a third of college students were clinically depressed; rather, they had at least some of the symptoms associated with the disorder. The finding is in line with data from surveys showing that 10% to 40% of college students have depressive symptoms at one time or another.

(MORE: Should Depressed People Avoid Having Children?)

Authors Sriram Chellapan and Raghavendra Kotikalapudi write:

We believe that your pattern of Internet use says something about you. Specifically, our research suggests it can offer clues to your mental well-being.

In a study [PDF] to be published in a forthcoming issue of IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, we and our colleagues found that students who showed signs of depression tended to use the Internet differently from those who showed no symptoms of depression.

The research cannot determine, however, whether depression causes this differing pattern of use, or vice versa — or more importantly, whether this Internet behavior worsens, alleviates or has no effect on mood problems.

A depressed person might use gaming and video watching to avoid coping with emotional pain, or gaming could actually be a healthy escape that helps lift mood. Similarly, excess chatting and emailing might be a sign that someone is reaching out for helpful support, or it could signal desperation and anxiety related to socializing.

Rapid application switching seems likely to reflect the impairment in concentration that characterizes some kinds of depression, as the authors suggest, but it might alternatively be an adaptive way to get things done when focus is in short supply. Because the researchers avoided investigating the content of applications, emails and chats due to privacy concerns, it’s impossible to tell.

(MORE: Fact Check: A Survey Links Facebook to Drug Use in Teens)

Previous research on role of Internet use in depression has been mixed. Some studies certainly find that overuse is associated with worsening of the disorder, but others demonstrate that online therapy and social support can help.

The researchers seek to create applications that people with depressive tendencies could use to track their own patterns, potentially alerting them to seek help if troubling trends are spotted. Similar apps might be used by parents to monitor children.

While it’s creepy to think about all the things computer scientists can figure out about us online, at least this particular type of surveillance might help us improve our mental health.

(MORE: Study: Playing a Video Game Helps Teens Beat Depression)

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer for Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.