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Objectives: Most of the evidence on the effects of internet use on mental health derives from cross-sectional research. We set out to explore prospective associations between internet use (hours online and specific internet experiences) and future mental health problems.

Methods: Participants were 1,431 respondents from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), a UK birth cohort, who completed a questionnaire on internet use (time online and ten different internet experiences) when they were aged 18 years. Outcomes included past year self-harm, assessed at 21 years and high levels of depression and anxiety symptoms, assessed at 22 years. Associations were investigated using logistic regression models and analyses were conducted separately for males and females.

Results: Females reporting high levels of internet use (number of hours online) were found to be at increased risk of depression at follow-up (highest tertile vs lowest tertile OR= 1.41, 95% CI 0.90 to 2.20), whereas males with high levels of internet use were at increased risk for self-harm (highest tertile vs lowest tertile OR=2.53, 95%CI 0.93 to 6.90). There was no evidence to suggest an association between hours spent online and anxiety.
With regards to the specific internet experiences, associations were found for females but not for males. In fully adjusted models, being bullied online (OR=1.76, 95% CI 1.09 to 2.86) and meeting someone face to face (OR=1.55, 95% CI 1.00 to 2.41) were associated with an increased risk of future depression. Being bullied online was also associated with an increased risk of future self-harm (OR= 2.42, 95% CI 1.41 to 4.15), along with receiving unwanted sexual comments or material, and coming across pornography and violent/gruesome material.

Conclusions: Our findings highlight the importance of digital citizenship training to help teach young people to use technology safely and responsibly.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0235889
Number of pages15
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 23 Jul 2020


  • Internet
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Prospective

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