Comment »Posted on Friday 20 February 2009 at 7:53 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology

To be fair to the Daily Mail, their headline was the slightly more reserved “How using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer“, but the sentiment is the same. Are users of the popular social network putting their health at risk with every status update?

The Mail’s report is based on a paper published in the journal Biology by Dr Aric Sigman, who has previously suggested that watching sex on TV makes teenagers more likely to become pregnant – so he’s already sliding in to the “spouts nonsense” category of my personal sliding scale of scientists. His paper is available for anyone to read though, which wins him back a few points. I decided to have a read before drawing any conclusions.

First off, it’s important to point out that Signman has not actually done any new research, but merely analysed the work of others. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as this type of so-called meta-analysis can often produce interesting and useful results.

Sigman begins by referencing two papers that describe the dwindling hours people spend with real-world, face-to-face, contact. Fair enough, except that one is based on data from 2004 and the other from 2000, although both sources published this data some time later. What’s the problem? Well, MySpace launched in late 2003 and Facebook in 2004. Now the two biggest social network websites, they would have had little or indeed no impact when this data was collected.

The paper is entitled Well Connected?: The Biological Implications of ‘Social Networking’, but as far as I can tell none of the references it draws on make any mention of online social networks. Instead, the papers that Sigman has reviewed tend to discuss the health effects of real-life social networks.

I’m torn here. The Daily Mail’s headline is clearly wrong, but I feel I can’t place full blame at their feet. Sigman has extrapolated from other sources, and mistaken correlation for causation. It’s one thing for a paper to say that patients with increased social activities show higher levels of Natural Killer T cells (tumour fighters, essentially), but it’s quite another to say that communicating online will have a detrimental effect. Who knows, it might even have the same effect – Sigman doesn’t know either way, because he hasn’t actually looked into it.

There is also the matter of this graph:

Pretty damning evidence from the looks of it: people are spending more time with computers and the like, and less with each other. Certainly a correlation, but does that mean that one has caused the other? No.

In addition, the caption reads “Hours per day of face-to-face social interaction declines as use of electronic media increases. These trends are predicted to increase (data abstracted from a series of time-use and demographic studies)”. In other words it has been cobbled together from a bunch of different sources, and as the origin of data is not listed it’s hard to draw any meaningful conclusions from the graph.

I think it’s safe to say that Facebook, nor indeed any other website, will give you cancer. At the same time, I’m struggling to figure out whether Sigman has anything at all to say about the health effects of social networking, or if he has just thrown together a bunch of information in the hopes that some of it sticks to the likes of the Daily Mail. Hmm.

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