A suitable case for Tweetment?

If the thought of Facebook ripping off all your stuff wasn’t scary enough, it now turns out that social media use is, allegedly, bad for your health.

According to Dr Aric Sigman (a “business and performance psychologist”) a whole host of physical ills, from the common cold to coronary disease, stroke, cancer and dementia, can be linked to use of social networking sites. He implies that the causative factor is lack of face-to-face interaction, caused by people spending too much time online.

I have read the full paper, published in Biologist, journal of the Institute of Biology, (there is a good summary of it in the Guardian), though it’s more of a magazine article than a scientific paper as such, containing as it does no original research, and no indication that Dr Sigman has carried out a systematic review of work published on the topic. I have to say that I find his conclusions somewhat hard to swallow (or at least the conclusions he highlights in his press release – the actual paper is rather more circumspect in what it says about social networking services).

First off, even if one accepts that there has been an increase in “social disconnectedness” in the last twenty years, there are any number of factors that could explain this, and attributing it all to social networking services, which are a fairly recent development, sounds more like a way of generating headlines than serious science. My experience, admittedly anecdotal, of services like Facebook makes me think that the people who use them most are actually among the more gregarious in society, and that those who have problems with real-life social interaction tend to find it difficult to cultivate online friendships too. There has perhaps been a change in the definition of “friendship”, but I think it is wrong to assume that this change is necessarily a devaluation – Dr Sigman seems to give no value to the definite positive effects of virtual interaction for people who would otherwise have little or no contact with other humans, due to physical disability, mental health problems, geographical isolation, or just lack of confidence.

Secondly, while there may well be an association between measures of social isolation and adverse physical and psychological health outcomes, the direction of causality is less clear, and the mediating factors proposed in Dr Sigman’s paper seem speculative to say the least, so it is absurdly reductive to claim that there is a direct connection between use of social media and ill-health.

Then there’s the ad hominem stuff. Dr Sigman is a repeat offender when it comes to scare stories about modern life – he has previously warned of the dangers of too much television, violent films and computer use generally. Unsurprisingly he is regularly quoted approvingly in the conservative press. He has a website of course, and a book to promote (Remotely Controlled: How Television is Damaging Our Lives), and he is available as a “Business Speaker” at £4-7K a time.

Lastly, (and I’ll admit that this is pure medical snobbery) I’m always a bit suspicious of anyone who lists “Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine” first among their qualifications, especially when they are not medically qualified. You may think it is just for top doctors, but the title is, as the RSM website says, available to anybody “holding medical, dental, veterinary or higher scientific qualifications; or in senior positions in healthcare and related fields” who is willing to pay the annual fee. I get junk mail once or twice a year inviting me to become a Fellow of the RSM – that’s how exclusive and prestigious it is.

So, on balance, I think that people can go on Tweeting and Poking without worrying too much about premature death.

One Response to A suitable case for Tweetment?

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