Digital antidepressant? Viewing online art can improve well-being

VIENNA, Austria — Could a quick browse through a museum’s website actually improve your mental health? A new study finds viewing galleries and museum exhibits online can benefit someone’s mental state and overall well-being — just like going to an art exhibit in person.

Researchers in Vienna say cultural institutions quickly had to convert to an online format during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic. Digital museums and online art galleries became a popular outlet for the public during quarantine. Moreover, study authors say this had two other effects: people could access cultural exhibits around the world from their couch and art galleries had a chance to reach a much larger audience.

Previous studies have found that a visit to a gallery or museum can have a powerful impact on a person’s mood and well-being. So, researchers from the University of Vienna and the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics wanted to see if the same was true for people viewing the same destinations on the internet.

Psychologists MacKenzie Trupp, Matthew Pelowski, and their team asked volunteers to visit art exhibitions online, using their smartphones, tablets, and other digital devices during the study. Before and after the visits, the team measured each person’s psychological state and well-being.

Is viewing digital art on par with a nature walk?

Results show that even a brief visit online can produce a significant improvement in someone’s mental state. After just one to two minutes spent looking at an online art gallery participants reported lower levels of negative mood, anxiety, and loneliness, as well as higher subjective well-being. The results were also similar to other mental health interventions including trips into nature or green spaces and visits to physical museums.

On a subjective level, the team found that people who found the digital art to be more meaningful or beautiful also reported more positive feelings after the experience. Researchers conclude that using the internet for as little as three minutes to visit an online art exhibit can still serve as a potential tool which boosts well-being.

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

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