Depressed internet users browse the web more randomly, switching between several applications, new research on university students suggests.
The researchers analyzed Internet usage among college students and found that students who show signs of depression tend to browse differently than others. They identified nine fine-grained patterns of Internet usage that may indicate depression.
For example, students showing signs of depression tend to use file-sharing services more than their counterparts, and also use the Internet in a more random manner, frequently switching among several applications. They also send email and chat online more than the other students.
Depressed students also tended to use higher "packets per flow" applications, those high-bandwidth applications often associated with online videos and games, than their counterparts.
"The study is believed to be the first that uses actual Internet data, collected unobtrusively and anonymously, to associate Internet usage with signs of depression," study researcher Sriram Chellappan, of Missouri University of Science and Technology, said in a statement.
The researchers anonymously collected a month's worth of Internet data for 216 undergraduate students. The students were also tested for signs of depression, about 30 percent of whom met the minimum criteria for depression. The researchers then analyzed the usage data of the study participants. They found that students who showed signs of depression used the Internet much differently than the other study participants.
Students who showed signs of depression also tended to use the Internet in a more "random" manner — frequently switching among applications, perhaps from chat rooms to games to email. Chellappan thinks that randomness may indicate trouble concentrating, a characteristic associated with depression.
The study has been accepted for publication in a forthcoming issue of IEEE Technology and Society Magazine.
Chellappan is now interested in using these findings to develop software that could be installed on home computers to help individuals determine whether their Internet usage patterns may indicate depression. The software would unobtrusively monitor Internet usage and alert individuals if their usage patterns indicate symptoms of depression.
"The software would be a cost-effective and an in-home tool that could proactively prompt users to seek medical help if their Internet usage patterns indicate possible depression," Chellappan said. "The software could also be installed on campus networks to notify counselors of students whose Internet usage patterns are indicative of depressive behavior."
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