Depressed? You don't have to be on the Net

By Published on .

In the course of our work here at NetMarketing, we talk to a lot of people who spend a lot of time on the Internet. Over the past few weeks, I've tried to study their emotional demeanor, and I must say, as a rule, they don't act depressed. They may be lonely, but if so, they seem remarkably enthusiastic about it.

These admittedly unscientific observations are in marked contrast to the recent findings of a much-touted study from Carnegie Mellon University suggesting that users of the Internet become depressed and socially withdrawn. Behavioral studies linked to Web usage are a dime a dozen, but because this one inexplicably wound up on Page 1 of The New York Times, it came with instant credibility.

What a downer: According to the study, heavy use of the Internet makes you lonely and blue. My first thought was concern for our readership, serious Web marketers who spend many hours every day cruising some of the most brutally commercial sites in cyberspace. My God, it's bad enough that cruising the Web can wreck your eyesight and give you paralyzing carpal tunnel syndrome -- now we learn that it sucks the very life from your soul as well?

You'll be relieved to hear that in fact, despite The Times' news judgment, the study has almost no relevance to the real world -- particularly to the world of business Web users.

Better statisticians than me have already dissected some of the biggest flaws in the methodology: The 169 Pittsburgh participants were not chosen randomly, and involved people new to the Internet. The estimate of the change in their mental state was based on only two surveys, one before and one after, taken up to two full years apart. And the group included a large population of teen-agers, who are always depressed anyway.

Those are all valid criticisms. But to me, even more important is this fact: The participants weren't self-selected by any desire to be online in the first place. And what could be more depressing than aimlessly surfing the Web?

There's a reason only 20% of Americans are online: They're the only ones who have found any return on their investment of personal time in the Internet. That return could be in the form of news, shopping, research, chat or entertainment, but the bottom line is there's a focus and a goal.

Admittedly, that goal is different for everyone. Take chat, for example: If I had to spend an hour or two every day in an AOL chat room, I'd be well beyond depressed and deep into suicidal. But for others, chat is the primary driver of their online life.

The point is that going on the Internet without any purpose is like taking a bus to nowhere for no reason and then wondering why you aren't having fun.

The essential value of the Internet comes down to convenience. Every activity we carry out online is in some way substituting for other tasks that are slower or more difficult -- or flat-out impossible -- to do offline. For many people, Web life comes in increments of 20 minutes or less per session, repeated multiple times every day.

Because purposeful Web use is so convenient, it not only doesn't depress regular users, it makes them happy. And nothing is more purposeful than business-to-business Web use. It is as precisely targeted as a Web session can be.

The thing about the Internet that drives b-to-b Web marketers to Prozac isn't their own Web use. It's when their customers aren't spending enough time online. Now that's depressing.

David Klein is associate publisher/editor of the Ad Age Group. You can e-mail him at, where he is relentlessly cheerful.

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