The internet has raised all kinds of new possibilities in how we do things, and psychology is no exception. A big question right now is how computer-based interventions can be used to improve psychological and psychiatric care.

Recently, a systematic review of existing research looked at whether web-based interventions can help people cope with stress.

The appeal of being able to help people with stress online is obvious: there are a lot of really stressed people out there. For example, I wrote last week about a new survey showing that college students are really stressed out, and I’m pretty confident in saying they aren’t the only ones who would benefit from a little stress reduction.

The good news is that according to the new meta-analysis, computer-based stress interventions have the potential to reduce stress in a lasting way.

The results also shed light on what kinds of interventions seem to work best. It turns out that medium-length interventions – that is, those lasting 5 to 8 weeks – seem to hit the sweet spot and have the maximal impact. Shorter interventions have a smaller effect, while interventions lasting longer than two months appear to be too much of a good thing because they have no effect at all.

Of course, stress isn’t the only problem online interventions can target. Previous research on web-based interventions for other mental health issues back up the idea that computer-based interventions can be successful but that the details of how the intervention is done are important.

For example, one study on web-based treatment of insomnia found that the online intervention was most successful when there was coordination with patients’ clinicians.

Another study, this one on interventions to prevent smoking in teens, found a couple different factors that predicted interventions’ success. One was how emotionally involved participants felt, which was directly related to how interactive the program was. A second important factor was how entertaining the program was, with more boring interventions being (perhaps unsurprisingly) less effectively.

Altogether, these studies suggest that web-based interventions could play a role in treating a whole range of mental health problems. However, all online interventions are not equal, and more research will have to be done to figure out what makes for an optimal computer-based mental health intervention.

Image: Flickr/Gerald Streiter