Is Digitalization Really Increasing Rates of Anxiety and Depression?

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I read an article called “Digitalization is increasing the prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide“. Is it really, though? Now, fair warning, this isn’t really a post about anxiety, depression, and digitalization. It’s more about science communication and journalism.

The scientists looked at Google Ngram Data, which covers about 6% of published books, to find the prevalence of the words anxiety, depression, and digitalization. They used the word religion as a control. They found that there was a positive correlation between the words, and all three words have increased in use over the past 50 years. There was no corresponding correlation with the word religion. Their conclusion is that digitalization has, in fact, led to higher rates of anxiety and depression.

I have some issues with this. First is the claim of “worldwide”. They only used six languages: German, British English, Russian, Spanish, French, and Italian. Notice how those are only European languages. Given that most of the world’s population isn’t in Europe, how do they know that the conclusions apply to the whole world? Europe isn’t exactly a representative sample.

My second issue is that everyone knows that correlation does not equal causation. It’s so well known that autofill got there before I could type the phrase. Maybe anxiety and depression cause digitalization. Or maybe something else causes all three. Or, and this may sound crazy, the same things that have led to digitalization have also led to better, and more common, diagnoses of anxiety and depression. I could speculate all day. The point is that their conclusion is far from the only one suggested by the data, at least if the article I read is accurate.

Those two issues lead to my issues with science journalism in general. It’s possible that the study accounted for all these things, but, if it did, why didn’t the article say so? The actual data isn’t available to me. I’m supposed to take the findings on faith. Not very scientific.

Also, I’m not a scientist. Maybe I misunderstood the article. I’m nowhere near expert in these things. But the point of science journalism is to dumb it down to the point where I, and people like me, can understand it. If I did misunderstand, that’s on the journalist.

Science journalism is always making grandiose claims. It seems like every study is a breakthrough or a game-changer. They all can’t be, though. I suppose, like everything else online, science journalists are doing it for the clicks. It worked on me. But I was disappointed by the article itself.

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