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Can your web-surfing habits signal depression?

For the past several years, researchers have been attempting to determine whether our Internet habits reflect how we’re feeling -- anxious, depressed, distracted, euphoric -- or whether they actually trigger our moods. The jury is still out on that, but one soon-to-be published study suggests that people with symptoms of depression spend their screen time quite differently than those who don’t.

Researchers from Missouri University of Science and Technology administered depression screening questionnaires to 216 undergraduate students last year and determined that about 30 percent met the criteria for having signs of depression such as sadness, insomnia, loss of appetite, difficulty concentrating, unexplained fatigue, or feelings of hopelessness. The researchers then gained access to the students’ Internet usage (with the students’ permission) to see how much time they spent chatting online, downloading videos, or switching rapidly between e-mails, downloads, and web surfing.

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“We found nine Internet features that correlated with depressive symptoms,” said study leader Sriram Chellappan, an assistant professor of computer science; depressed folks tended to e-mail and instant message more frequently and were more likely to download videos or songs and play more online games than those who weren’t depressed. Overall, they spent more time on the Internet, though the researchers didn’t quantify the amount.

“Some people may infer that we’re applying causality,” said Chellappan, “but we’re not saying that using the Internet in a certain way causes depression” or that being depressed causes people to spend more time on the Internet.

Other research suggests that depressed individuals tend to spend more time in the virtual world, and frequent checking of e-mail has been linked to higher levels of anxiety. But these studies have relied mainly on people self-reporting their Internet usage, which doesn’t always reflect how much time they’re really spending online and what they’re doing.

In the latest research, slated to be published in the December issue of IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, Chellappan and his colleagues also discovered that depressed individuals tended to exhibit a high degree of something called flow duration entropy, which is the randomness of Internet usage -- whether someone switches back and forth between web surfing, e-mails, chats, and downloads.

This could reflect the concentration difficulties that often stem from depression or a desperate attempt to find some pleasurable experience in those who feel little joy in any aspect of their lives.

If these findings are confirmed by larger studies, Chellappan said he envisions a futuristic screening tool that would monitor the online habits of college students and perhaps send an e-mail alert to students or their parents that the student might be at risk for depression.

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.
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