Well Connected? The Biological Implications of ‘Social Networking’

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).

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).

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Author: Daniël Verhoeven

Two scientists express their concern about the use of the social Web.  According to Sigman’s article, entitled “Well Connected? The Biological Implications of ‘Social Networking.”, it could  increase the risk of problems as serious as cancer, strokes, heart disease and dementia. Lady Greenfield expressed earlier this month her concerns  in a debate in the House of Lords, in which she said that social networking, as well as computer games, might be particularly harmful to children, and could be behind the observed rise in cases of attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder.

Research suggested that the number of hours people spent speaking to others face-to-face had fallen dramatically since 1987 as the use of electronic media increased.  Social networking sites such as Facebook could raise your risk of serious health problems by reducing levels of face-to-face contact, a doctor claims. Emailing people rather than meeting up with them may have wide-ranging biological effects, said psychologist Dr Aric Sigman.

Social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook allow people to keep in touch with friends over the web. They can swap pictures, play games and leave messages which explain how their day is going. But the lack of face to face contacts can cause health problems as to Sigman.

We are lacking face to face contacts

Britons spend about 50 minutes a day interacting socially with other people. The Internet and other electronic media “can be fantastic tools but they shouldn’t displace real relationships,” Sigman said said. “The balance is all wrong.” But even though they are designed to bring people together, Dr Sigman said they were actually playing a significant role in people becoming more isolated.

The Office for National Statistics of the UK has just reported that “over the last two decades the proportion of people living alone doubled”, a trend now highly pronounced in the 25-44 age group. For the first time in our history a third of the adults in this country live alone, a trend that looks set to continue.

The rapid proliferation of electronic media is now making private space available in almost every sphere of the individual’s life. Yet this is now the most significant contributing factor to society’s growing physical estrangement. Whether in or out of the home, more people of all ages in the UK are physically and socially disengaged  from the people around them because they are wearing earphones, talking or texting on a mobile telephone, or using a laptop or Blackberry. An increasing number of deaths caused by the wearers of MP3 players inadvertently stepping into oncoming traffic has led to Senatorial proposals for a New York State ‘distracted walking bill’ to outlaw the use of mobile phones, handheld emailing devices such as Blackberries and video games while crossing a road. Senator Carl Kruger described how people walking around ‘tuned in’ were, in the process of being tuned in, being ‘tuned out’ to the world around them. The malady is referred to as “iPod oblivion”.

Children now spend more time in the family home alone in front of TV/computer screens than doing anything else (Sigman, 2007). A study by the Children’s Society recently found that television alone is displacing the parental role, eclipsing “by a factor of five or ten the time parents spend actively engaging with children”. Another ongoing study reports that 25% of British five-year olds own a computer or laptop of their own. In particular, the study noted an enormous increase in ‘social networking’ among younger children which “has overtaken fun (online games) as the main reason to use the Internet”. UK social-networking usage is now the highest in Europe. The trend is set to increase: the BBC has recently unveiled the social networking site MyCBBC directed at children as young as six.

Electronic media was also undermining the ability of children and young people to learn vital social skills and read body language, said Dr Sigman. ‘Parents spend less time with their children than they did only a decade ago. Britain has the lowest proportion of children in all of Europe who eat with their parents at the table. The proportion of people who work at home alone continues to rise.

Couples spend less time with each other and more time at work, commuting, or in separate rooms of the same house using electronic media devices, and Britain has the lowest proportion of children in Europe who eat with their parents at the table.

‘One of the most pronounced changes in the daily habits of British citizens is a reduction in the number of minutes per day that they interact with another human being,’ he said. ‘In less than two decades, the number of people saying there is no one with whom they discuss important matters nearly tripled.

Is Social Networking Killing us?

Well, no, probably not. Or at least, not literally.  But also  Susan Greenfield suggested that spending all day, and — admit it — much of the night networking on a computer might in fact be bad for your body and your brain.

Susan Greenfeld is an authority on the brain’s workings , she’s a professor of pharmacology at Oxford University and the director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain. She told a British newspaper  that social networking sites remind her of the way that “small babies need constant reassurance that they exist” and make her worry about the effects that this sort of stimulation is having on the brains of users. Lady Greenfield (she’s a neuroscientist and a baroness) told the Daily Mail:

My fear is that these technologies are infantilizing the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment.

These remarks echo concerns that Lady Greenfield expressed earlier this month in a debate in the House of Lords, in which she said that social networking, as well as computer games, might be particularly harmful to children, and could be behind the observed rise in cases of attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder:

If the young brain is exposed from the outset to a world of fast action and reaction, of instant new screen images flashing up with the press of a key, such rapid interchange might accustom the brain to operate over such timescales.

As if to perfectly prove her point, here is 36 seconds of Lady Greenfield attempting to explain her thoughts to a reporter for Britain’s Channel Five, in a video clip posted on YouTube today by the broadcaster, without any introduction or context:

A day later, in a very interesting interview on The Guardian’s Newsdesk podcast, Lady Greenfield was given several minutes more to expand on her thoughts. It is worth listening to the whole interview, but of particular interest is her suggestion that conducting personal relationships through a screen could be having an effect on the brains of users and might even be related to the rise in cases of both A.D.H.D. and autism.


In the House of Lords debate, Lady Greenfield also stressed that social interactions conducted through computer screens are fundamentally different from spoken conversations — which, she said, are “far more perilous” than electronic interactions because they “occur in real time, with no opportunity to think up clever or witty responses.”

Lady Greenfield told the Lords:

Real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitized and easier screen dialogues, in much the same way as killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat has been replaced by the convenience of packages of meat on the supermarket shelf. Perhaps future generations will recoil with similar horror at the messiness, unpredictability and immediate personal involvement of a three-dimensional, real-time interaction.

Biological mechanisms

Time that was previously spent interacting socially is increasingly been displaced by the virtual variety. A recent editorial of the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine made the timely point that leukocytes, the small white blood cells of the human immune system, has reported the first evidence that social isolation is actually linked to global alterations in human gene transcription in leukocytes. Transcriptioninvolves the transfer of genetic information from the DNA molecule to the messenger RNA. DNA analysis identified 209 genes that were differentially expressed in circulating leukocytes taken from subjects who reported high levels of social isolation versus those reporting low levels. The differences between the groups included the increased expression of genes involved in immune activation, transcription control, and cell proliferation, and the decreased expression of genes supporting the function of the leukocytes (mature B lymphocytes) and Type I interferon response. The researchers found impaired transcription in genes, which is central to our bodies mounting an anti-inflammatory reaction to illness or stress, referred to as a glucocorticoid response. They also observed increased activity in the gene transcription control pathways that promote inflammation in disease and stress, and they now believe that this is a functional genomic explanation for the greater risk of inflammatory disease and adverse health outcomes in individuals who experience high levels of subjective social isolation (Cole et al, 2007).

Based on quantitative angiogram findings, subjects with smaller social networks had narrower arteries (mean angiogram stenosis value, 40.8 vs 27.2 for small vs. large social networks, respectively; (p<0.001) (adapted from Rutledge et al., 2004).

Based on quantitative angiogram findings, subjects with smaller social networks had narrower arteries (mean angiogram stenosis value, 40.8 vs 27.2 for small vs. large social networks, respectively; (p<0.001) (adapted from Rutledge et al., 2004).

Lack of social connection or loneliness is also associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease. The neuropeptide oxytocin is increasingly considered the ‘hormone of affiliation’, released in plasma and cerebrospinal fluid in response to everyday aspects of human interaction such as somatosensory stimulation, hugging, touch, warm temperature – and it is also involved in feelings of trust and generosity. Oxytocin has recently been found to prevent detrimental cardiac responses including elevated resting heart rate, reduced heart rate variability, and reduced parasympathetic regulation of the heart in adult female animals exposed to social isolation. This may be one of the central mechanisms that underlie the relationship between social contact, cardiovascular disease or better cardiac function in humans.

The lack of “real” interaction combined with a dependence on technology is increasingly tied to physiological changes known to influence morbidity, or the extent of disease, and mortality, according to the article, which collates data from western industrialized societies. Those changes include upsetting hormone levels, immune responses and blood pressure, the function of arteries and mental performance. Social networking Web sites such as Facebook and MySpace may increase the risk of health problems as serious as cancer, strokes and dementia by altering the way genes work, according to Sigman’s  report in the Biologist journal.

“We probably have an evolutionary protective mechanism and when we were still in the cave, we would survive so much easier when we worked together,” Sigman said in a telephone interview. “Evolution has a system that benefits us when we connect with other people in the flesh.”
National debate

Interacting ‘in person’ had effects on the body not seen when writing emails, Dr Sigman claimed. Levels of hormones such as the ‘cuddle chemical’ oxytocin, which promotes bonding, altered according to whether people were in close contact or not. ‘There does seem to be a difference between “real presence” and the virtual variety,’ Dr Sigman added.

Some genes, including ones involved with the immune system and responses to stress, acted differently according to how much social interaction a person had with others. Increased isolation could alter the way genes work and upset immune responses, hormone levels and the function of arteries. It could also impair mental performance.

This could increase the risk of problems as serious as cancer, strokes, heart disease and dementia, Dr Sigman says in Biologist, the journal of the Institute of Biology.

Dr Sigman added: ‘Social networking sites should allow us to embellish our social lives, but what we find is very different.

Looking around him, Dr. Sigman has observed that, lately, more people “are physically and socially disengaged from the people around them because they are wearing earphones, talking or texting on a mobile telephone, or using a laptop or Blackberry.” Then he notes:

Time that was previously spent interacting socially has increasingly been displaced by the virtual variety. A recent editorial in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine made the timely point that social networking “encourages us to ignore the social networks that form in our non-virtual communities. … The time we spend socializing electronically separates us from our physical networks.”

From there, Dr. Sigman makes something of a leap, suggesting on the basis of no experimental evidence that virtual social networking, by way of Web sites like Facebook or Twitter, probably does not confer the same health benefits as actual, unmediated social interaction.

One problem with this analysis, as Charles Arthur pointed out on The Guardian’s technology blog, is that Dr. Sigman does not seem to distinguish between interactive activities people engage in online, particularly on social networking sites, and the more passive consumption of media, like watching television or listening to music. He refers to time spent “in front of TV/computer screens” and presents a chart of hours spent in “Social Interaction vs. Electronic Media Use,” which of course assumes that there is no overlap between those two activities.

Most telling, as Mr. Arthur noted, is that Dr. Sigman seemed not to take account of how the Web is increasingly used in what Lawrence Lessig calls read-write ways that are very different from passive media consumption. As Mr. Arthur wrote:

Sigman points to a 1998 study that suggested that greater use of the Internet “was associated with declines in communication between family members in the house, declines in the size of their social circle, and increases in their levels of depression and loneliness.”

O.K., that was 1998, though. In fact, Sigman doesn’t really have anything to say about social networking systems such as Facebook and Twitter.

So, until some future studies are done comparing the health of compulsive users of Facebook or Twitter to that of their peers, the jury is still out on whether we will all be killed or driven mad by social networking.

One conclusion that some networkers have already come to, though, is that social networking may be killing us in a different way — by adding to our workloads. As Kamran Abbasi wrote in the editorial in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine that was cited by Dr. Sigman:

My enthusiasm for reviving old friendships and retaining newer ones via social networking waned when managing information about other people’s socializing became harder work than my day job.

Two summers ago, the editors of the journal N+1 made a similar point about how even e-mail had started to seem more like work than play. And last month in The London Review of Books, in an essay on video games, John Lanchester wrote that in some ways, even games played on a computer are a kind of work:

A common criticism of video games made by non-gamers is that they are pointless and escapist, but a more valid observation might be that the bulk of games are nowhere near escapist enough. A persuasive recent essay by the games theorist Steven Poole made the strong argument that the majority of games offer a model of play which is oppressively close to work. The Grand Theft Auto games, for example, are notorious (especially among people who’ve never played them) for their apparent celebration of random violence. The most recent iteration of the game, however, Grand Theft Auto IV, involves the main character having to spend a large amount of time building up his relationships, so that he can have people to help him do his criminal thing; and building up these relationships involves driving to see these people, taking them out to nightclubs, and sitting there with them. It’s not significantly less boring in the game than it would be in real life.

The very interesting post Mr. Lanchester points to, “Working for the Man: Against the Employment Paradigm in Videogames,” on Steven Poole’s blog, makes you wonder if there is any way in which computers can be used now that is not some form of work. After noting that many games “hire us for imaginary, meaningless jobs that replicate the structures of real-world employment,” Mr. Poole makes a persuasive case that all of us really should get away from our screens for a good long while:

Today, the most common paradigm for progress in games, for example, is the idea of “earning.” Follow the rules, achieve results, and you are rewarded with bits of symbolic currency — credits, stars, skill points, powerful glowing orbs — which you can then exchange later in the game for new gadgets, ways of moving, or access to previously denied areas. The only major difference between this paradigm and that of a real-world job is that, whereas the money earned from a job enables you to buy beer and go on holiday — that is, to do things that are extraneous to the mechanized work process — the closed video-game system rewards you with things that only makes it supposedly more fun or involving to continue doing your job, rather than letting you get outside it.

Sources:

Well connected? (paper of Dr. Sigman)
Social websites harm children’s brains: Chilling warning to parents from top neuroscientist

Addictive Internet Use Tied to Depression in Teens

MMR and the value of word of mouth in social networks
Technology Blog
Daily Mail online
New York Times

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