Sometimes I just despair. I almost understand it when the media gets its knickers in a twist about ‘internet addiction’ and similar nonsense, because most outlets never been great at separating the wheat from the chaff. But it beggars beliefs why otherwise respectable professionals can spout similar drivel when they’re supposed to be trained to deal with the evidence.
Case in point. At the recent Annual Meeting of the Royal College of Psychiatrists Dr Himanshu Tyagi gave a widely reported talk where he said social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace could damage young people’s relationships and make them more susceptible to suicide, despite the evidence suggesting exactly the opposite.
On this occasion, the icing on the cake was provided by the Royal College, who for some reason decided to press release this scandalous scaremongering.
I shall reproduce the critical paragraph below, because it pushes so many media panic buttons you’d think it was from one of the UK tabloids:
‚ÄùThis is the age group involved with the Bridgend suicides and what many of these young people had in common was their use of Internet to communicate. It’s a world where everything moves fast and changes all the time, where relationships are quickly disposed at the click of a mouse, where you can delete your profile if you don’t like it and swap an unacceptable identity in the blink of an eye for one that is more acceptable,‚Äù said Dr Tyagi. ‚ÄúPeople used to the quick pace of online social networking may soon find the real world boring and unstimulating, potentially leading to more extreme behaviour to get that sense.
‚ÄùIt may be possible that young people who have no experience of a world without online societies put less value on their real world identities and can therefore be at risk in their real lives, perhaps more vulnerable to impulsive behaviour or even suicide. This is definitely a line of reasoning that warrants more investigation and research.‚Äù
So what evidence is there that Facebook damages social relationships? None. In fact, less than none because the little amount of existing research suggests it actually encourages social cohesion.
One recent study published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication found exactly this and noted that “students reporting low satisfaction and low self-esteem appeared to gain in bridging social capital if they used Facebook more intensely”.
Another study found that students use Facebook to enhance relationships they already formed in real life. One study did find that using such sites could lower self-esteem, but only when (wait for it) users got negative feedback from others, it boosted self-esteem when they got positive feedback.
Furthermore, the fact that Tyagi and the Royal College are allowing a link to be made with a spate of suicides in Bridgend is in really bad taste.
Bridgend is a county in South Wales that has suffered a number of suicides of young people during the last year, and the UK tabloids initially ran scare stories about ‘internet suicide cults’ because almost all of them used social networking sites.
I’m sure you’ve already picked up on the flawed logic here, and, indeed, this theory was quickly dismissed by the authorities (presumably alongside the ‘eats crisps’ and ‘wears jeans’ suicide cult theories).
So goodness knows why the Royal College are promoting this tasteless insinuation alongside a load of evidence-free and frankly sensationalist drivel.
Oh, did I mention that Tyagi is a partner in a large online medical education website for doctors?
Link to Facebook study.