BROADBAND INTERNET REDUCES THE MENTAL HEALTH OF WOMEN AND WIDENS THE GENDER GAP

13 Apr 2021

Having access to broadband internet negatively affects the mental health of adult women in Germany, but not that of men, according to research by Marta Golin (University of Oxford).

Her analysis of data from the German Socio-Economic Panel, a large survey of private households in Germany, reveals that, in the early phase of DSL diffusion in Germany, women who had access to broadband internet in their household reported lower mental health compared with women without high-speed internet at home.

The decline in mental health is driven primarily by a worsening of women’s socialising behaviour and self-reported productivity due to emotional problems. The negative effects of high-speed internet on mental health are concentrated among the youngest cohorts (18-30), which suggests that higher usage is linked to stronger negative effects of DSL Internet on mental health.

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Mental health conditions, together with substance use disorders, account for a significant share of the global burden of disease and have large economic costs: the World Health Organization estimates the current cost to the global economy of depression and anxiety to be around $1 trillion per year in lost productivity. Furthermore, the prevalence of mental disorders has increased in the last decades, especially among teenagers and young adults. This has led the debate on the determinants of mental health conditions to turn its attention to the role of internet and mobile technologies in explaining this trend.

In order to understand the role that internet plays for mental health, the new study compares the self-reported mental condition of individuals who have a DSL connection at home with that of people without high-speed internet access, during the early phase of diffusion of broadband Internet (2008-2012).

The main data source is the German Socio-Economic Panel, a large survey of private households in Germany with information on DSL internet availability and the household level and self-reported mental health of survey respondents.

To estimate the effect of the internet on mental health, the author exploits exogenous variation in the characteristics of the German telecommunication network that generate constraints in the supply of DSL Internet across the country. These characteristics include the distance of a household from its assigned main distribution frame (MDF) and the type of wires that connect the household to the MDF. Publicly available information on the catchment areas and characteristics of the German network infrastructure is linked with restricted access data on the coordinates of respondents to the German Socio-Economic Panel.

Mental health is measured with a summary scale derived from a 12-question module capturing the self-reported health condition of the respondent in the four weeks prior to the survey. Prior to the diffusion of high-speed internet, women already had worse mental health than men. During the early phase of broadband internet, having a DSL connection at home significantly decreased the self-reported mental health of women, but not that of men, thus widening the gender gap in subjective wellbeing.

The author further explores which facets of women’s mental health are more severely affected by having a high-speed internet connection. She finds that broadband internet significantly worsens women’s socialising behaviour and is linked to a lower perceived productivity at work due to mental health problems.

In addition, the severity of the impacts is larger for younger cohorts (aged 18-30), which suggests that higher usage intensity amplifies the negative effects of high-speed internet on mental health.

These findings highlight the importance of raising awareness about the potential negative effect of internet use. More research on which online activities are most detrimental for mental health is warranted.

Marta Golin

University of Oxford | marta.golin@economics.ox.ac.uk