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Students who have depression tend to use the Internet differently than those who show no symptoms of depression, according to a new study.

Researchers from Missouri University of Science and Technology have discovered that students who have depression tend to use file-sharing services more than their counterparts and they also use the Internet in a more random manner, frequently switching among several applications.

"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", said Dr Sriram Chellappan, an assistant professor of computer science at Missouri University of Science and Technology, in a statement.

Researchers discovered this when they conducted a study of 216 undergraduate students. They collected internet usage of the participants students involved in the study were assigned pseudonyms to keep their identities hidden from the researchers.

Before the researchers collected the usage data from the campus network, the students were tested to determine whether they showed signs of depression. The researchers then analysed 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.

Researchers found that depressed students tended to use file-sharing services, 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.

Students who showed signs of depression also tended to use the Internet in a more "random" manner - frequently switching among applications, for instance, they switch from chat rooms to games to email. Researchers claim that randomness may indicate trouble concentrating, a characteristic associated with depression.

"Students showing signs of depression had high flow duration entropy, which means that the duration of Internet flows of these students is highly inconsistent," Chellappan says.

Now researchers are planning 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 says. "The software could also be installed on campus networks to notify counselors of students whose Internet usage patterns are indicative of depressive behaviour."

Researchers also believe that the method used to connect Internet use and depression could also help diagnose other mental disorders like anorexia, bulimia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or schizophrenia.

"We could also investigate associations between other Internet features like visits to social networking sites, late night Internet use and randomness in time of Internet use with depressive symptoms," he says.

"Applications of this study to diagnose and treat mental disorders for other vulnerable groups like the elderly and military veterans are also significant," he concluded.