Just when you think journalism from respected news organizations couldn’t sink any lower, the BBC (amongst many other news agencies) is reporting today that “Online networking ‘harms health:'”
People’s health could be harmed by social networking sites because they reduce levels of face-to-face contact, an expert claims.
The rest of the article (which bears no byline) is a one-sided, biased piece of reporting that doesn’t even raise a single skeptical eyebrow.
Had it bothered to do any, well, actual journalism, the reporter may have discovered that Aric Sigman’s (2009) hypothesis relies on a flimsy connection — that Internet relationships are less real and result in greater social isolation and loneliness for people who increasingly turn to them. Here’s the logical reasoning of Sigman:
1. Studies have shown a connection between health problems and loneliness (and not surprisingly, depression).
2. The Internet leads to less face-to-face interactions with friends and family and one study published over a decade ago (Kraut, 1998) showed that, in a study of 73 families who used the Internet for communication, greater use of the Internet was associated with declines in communication between family members, declines in the size of their social circle, and increases in their levels of depression and loneliness.
3. Therefore, the Internet causes health problems.
(I’ll ignore the fact that there have been zero studies that actually implicate social networking websites — they only looked at Internet use in general. It’s sexier and certainly more likely to draw the media’s attention if you say “Facebook” rather than just “the web” or “email.”)
The biggest problem with this professional’s claims is the tenuous connection of point #2. Citing an 11-year-old study to make your point, while ignoring more recent, contradictory evidence, is not atypical of an article trying hard to “prove” its point. But here’s a few, more recent studies that show this is a claim that has been well-refuted:
Lee & Chae (2007) found that while family face-to-face communications may indeed decline, they are displaced not by the total time spent on the Internet but by functionally equivalent online activities.
Ko & Kuo (2009) found that bloggers enjoyed an enhanced subjective well-being. Far from increasing loneliness, blogging (and its increase in time spent online) was actually found to be positively related to one’s happiness.
Shapira et al. (2007) found that older adults who used the Internet increased their overall well-being and happiness as compared to a control group who did not.
But the biggest argument against Sigman’s reasoning is the Amichai-Hamburger & Ben-Artzi (2003) study that directly contradicted the findings of Kraut’s conclusions:
These results are particularly exciting because they cast a whole new light on the issue of Internet and well-being in general, and Internet and loneliness in particular. These findings clearly demonstrate that it is lonely women who are attracted to the Internet, rather than as was previously argued (e.g., Kraut et al., 1998) that the Internet is the cause of their loneliness.
I could go on, but you get the point. The Internet’s not the problem — the Internet is a solution for lonely people. The argument should be made against the terrible condition of loneliness and how to combat it, not one of the ways people actually use to combat it!
There’s a myriad of additional research studies that show there are many pro-social and psychological benefits of Internet use. The research also shows that there’s a definite correlation between increased compulsive (e.g., dysfunctional) Internet use and loneliness. Do lonely people turn more to the Internet or does the Internet make one more lonely? We don’t know, but for this tiny subset of people, increased Internet use is likely not going to result in positive health outcomes, if left untreated. But if we found a similar correlation between reading books, would Sigman be calling for limits on reading?
Aric Sigman also completely ignores the health benefits associated with online use. That is, researching and finding information about one’s health or mental health condition, and seeking out treatment (or a better, more appropriate treatment) for it. How many countless lives have been saved or improved because of this information availability? Sigman doesn’t even acknowledge these healthy, potentially life-saving benefits of the Internet.
All human behaviors can be viewed on a risk scale, and each behavior should be weighed according to its benefits and risks. Are humans better off with the knowledge of the world (and their health) at their fingertips now? Or as we were 20 years ago, when all of that knowledge first used to pass through a gate-keeper (like a physician or professional)?
Now let’s see if the BBC and other news outlets report on this more balanced conclusion. I won’t be holding my breath.
Read the full BBC article: Online networking ‘harms health’.
Amichai-Hamburger, Y.; Ben-Artzi, E. (2003). Loneliness and Internet use. Computers in Human Behavior, Vol 19(1), 71-80.
Ko, H-C. & Kuo, F-Y. (2009). Can blogging enhance subjective well-being through self-disclosure? CyberPsychology & Behavior, 12(1), 75-79. DOI 10.1089/cpb.2008.0163.
Kraut R et al. (1998). Internet Paradox: A Social Technology That Reduces Social Involvement and Psychological Well-Being? American Psychologist, 53(9), 1017-1031.
Lee, S-J. & Chae, Y-G. (2007). Children’s Internet Use in a Family Context: Influence on Family Relationships and Parental Mediation. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 10(5):640.
Shapira, N., Barak, A. & Gal, I. (2007). Promoting older adults’ well-being through Internet training and use. Aging & Mental Health, Vol 11(5), 477-484.
Sigman, A. (2009). Well connected? The biological implications of ‘social networking.’ Biologist, 56(1), 14-21.