Facebook causes marble loss

Photo by Flickr user chefranden. Click for sourceYou know that awkward feeling you get when you stop laughing because you realise the person you’re talking to isn’t actually joking? I’ve just had it after reading the news reports that tell us ‘Facebook raises cancer risk’, ruining what I thought was a very funny parody.

They’re based on an appalling article by psychologist Aric Sigman which was published in the magazine Biologist. You can read it online as a pdf and it is a wonderful example of cherry-picking evidence and citing correlations as causes.

His claim is that electronic media, and particularly the use of social networking sites, are leading us to interact face-to-face less and that this has health risks.

So what evidence does Sigman cite to support his claim that social networking sites and face-to-face interaction are linked – a correlation showing that as social media use has increased, face-to-face interaction has decreased. Really, that’s it, and as we shall see it’s largely nonsense.

He then goes on to cite evidence that subjective loneliness is associated with various biological effects and health risks.

The last bit is well supported, loneliness is associated with negative health risks, but Sigman neglects to cite any studies that test the link between face-to-face interaction and the use of services such as Facebook.

This is not surprising, because so far, they’ve typically found that people who who these sites actually feel more socially connected and have better social ties.

Like this study that found that students use Facebook to enhance relationships they already formed in real life, or this study that found that Facebook use was associated with greater levels of social capital and psychological well-being.

In contrast, the link between loneliness and internet communication has not been reliably established and it is notable to we have almost nothing but correlational studies. So we don’t know whether internet communication increases loneliness in some people, or whether lonely people just use the internet to try and make themselves less lonely.

In fact, studies have reported correlations in both directions. Interestingly, while the early studies tended to find a link, later studies have been much less likely to do so, and in fact, many find exactly the opposite to what Sigman claims, but these are not mentioned.

For example, like one study that found that older adults who use the internet more report lower levels of loneliness, or this study in children that found internet use was associated with less loneliness, or this study that found no link in adolescents.

I’d like to be charitable and assume that this one-sidedness was down to ignorance, but the conclusion of the article makes me think it was deliberate cherry-picking. He writes:

A decade ago, a detailed classic study of 73 families who used the internet for communication, The Internet Paradox, concluded 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. They went on to report ‚Äúboth social disengagement and worsening of mood… and limited face-to-face social interaction… poor quality of life and diminished physical and psychological health‚Äù (Kraut et al, 1998).

This study was indeed a classic. It was so important that the same research team followed up the same participants several years later and published their results in a study called Internet Paradox Revisted that you can read online as a pdf file.

What they found was that the negative effects reported in the first study, except for a measure of daily hassles, had disappeared, and that the internet use was associated with better a social life:

Internet was associated with mainly positive outcomes over a range of dependent variables measuring social involvement and psychological well-being, local and distant social circle, face-to-face communication, community involvement, trust in people, positive affect, and unsurprisingly, computer skill.

Just typing ‘internet paradox’ into Google brings up both studies, but the second seems to be missing.

The article is quite clearly drivel if you spend more than 20 seconds on Google, but it seems to have been swallowed by most mainstream press outlets without question.

What is it about mentioning the internet that makes the press lose their marbles? I blame it on not using the internet.

7 Comments

  1. Jennifer R. Ewing
    Posted February 20, 2009 at 4:28 am | Permalink

    I live in a large metropolitan area which has very little public transportation. PCs weren’t available until my junior high years, and the internet wasn’t available until my college years. I never had very many “real life” friends, and without the ability to drive/own a car, my social circle dwindled rapidly once I graduated from college. Without the Internet, I would not have the friends I have now, and I wouldn’t have met my husband. As the saying goes, “you get out of it (the Internet) what you put into it”.

  2. Posted February 20, 2009 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    My worsening health is definitely correlated with greater internet use. I have ME (CFS) and I am currently not getting better so I spend more time on the internet as there is not much else that I have the energy to do.
    This would fit right in with that article. After all, there’s no need to get caught up in the facts; if there is a correlation you can assert causality either way just as you please. Isn’t that what we’re meant to learn from this?

  3. Posted February 21, 2009 at 2:38 am | Permalink

    I believe radio and TV were blamed for causing loneliness when they were introduced to the general public …

  4. Posted February 21, 2009 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    @conge: as were newspapers after the invention of the printing press. There are recorded complaints of the “sullen silence” in coffee houses, because everyone was reading newspapers rather than talking to each other: http://tinyurl.com/beb6zw. Plus ca change…

  5. Posted February 22, 2009 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    Ah, yet another news story where they deliberately misinterpret facts to conjure a scare story out of thin air :)
    I heard we humans have evolved to have stronger emotional reactions to negative events than positive events (after all, finding a new source of food is nice for survival, but it’s not as important as NOT falling off a cliff!)
    And since news is mostly about giving people shots of emotions… it makes sense they misinterpret anything they can to create scare stories :)
    “Facebook causes cancer.” – that’s just pure gold :p

  6. Posted February 23, 2009 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    That very awkward feeling you mention in the beginning of your post is an all-too-familiar feeling I get when I watch or read mainstream media report “facts” based loosely upon research studies. I recently touched on this issue in a recent blog post of mine in which a Congressman from California slightly misused research findings to achieve his own means concerning aggression and video games (putting a warning label on video games, similar to a pack of cigarettes). As such, when I found this blog post, I was intrigued to read your opinion on the subject.
    Personally, I am glad that you called Aric Sigman’s article “drivel,” as it clearly is nothing more than that. The very idea that the use of social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter could lead to health risks from societal withdrawal is laughable at best. Furthermore, Sigman “cherry-picking” his data is extremely socially irresponsible and potentially morally reprehensible, especially to claim it as truth to news media outlets. From what I have found, the Biologist is a peer-reviewed journal, but what can stop mainstream news outlets from claiming these papers as “the truth?” Does the fault lie with the magazine reviewers, themselves? Furthermore, do you see this as a problematic trend which is getting worse as new mediums technology are studied? What do you suppose is the basis for news outlets being so eager to latch on to and report inconclusive or incorrect findings?
    I would draw your attention to a recent blog post by John M. Grohol, PSY.D., called “Can Blogging Make You Happier?” from Psychcentral’s World of Psychology blog, http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2009/02/16/can-blogging-make-you-happier/, where he talks about a Taiwanese study which found that blogging can increase levels of social integration and interconnectivity, and therefore happiness. This study is similar to some of the other studies already posted on your blog, but how do you feel about a study like this, which has no control group, is based solely on self report, and is conducted in a different culture (individualistic vs. collectivistic)? Are studies like this any different—information-wise—from Aric Sigman’s study?
    Finally, I would like to thank you for producing such a funny, illuminating response to a major social problem in today’s society. All too often, poor scientific research studies are taken out of context and “swallowed by most mainstream press outlets without question.” It would seem that the only way to combat this is to raise awareness about this problem. I appreciate the work you have done thus far, and I look forward to your response.

  7. Posted February 23, 2009 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

    That very awkward feeling you mention in the beginning of your post is an all-too-familiar feeling I get when I watch or read mainstream media report “facts” based loosely upon research studies. I recently touched on this issue in a recent blog post of mine in which a Congressman from California slightly misused research findings to achieve his own means concerning aggression and video games (putting a warning label on video games, similar to a pack of cigarettes). As such, when I found this blog post, I was intrigued to read your opinion on the subject.
    Personally, I am glad that you called Aric Sigman’s article “drivel,” as it clearly is nothing more than that. The very idea that the use of social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter could lead to health risks from societal withdrawal is laughable at best. Furthermore, Sigman “cherry-picking” his data is extremely socially irresponsible and potentially morally reprehensible, especially to claim it as truth to news media outlets. From what I have found, the Biologist is a peer-reviewed journal, but what can stop mainstream news outlets from claiming these papers as “the truth?” Does the fault lie with the magazine reviewers, themselves? Furthermore, do you see this as a problematic trend which is getting worse as new mediums technology are studied? What do you suppose is the basis for news outlets being so eager to latch on to and report inconclusive or incorrect findings?
    I would draw your attention to a recent blog post by John M. Grohol, PSY.D., called “Can Blogging Make You Happier?” from Psychcentral’s World of Psychology blog, http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2009/02/16/can-blogging-make-you-happier/, where he talks about a Taiwanese study which found that blogging can increase levels of social integration and interconnectivity, and therefore happiness. This study is similar to some of the other studies already posted on your blog, but how do you feel about a study like this, which has no control group, is based solely on self report, and is conducted in a different culture (individualistic vs. collectivistic)? Are studies like this any different—information-wise—from Aric Sigman’s study?
    Finally, I would like to thank you for producing such a funny, illuminating response to a major social problem in today’s society. All too often, poor scientific research studies are taken out of context and “swallowed by most mainstream press outlets without question.” It would seem that the only way to combat this is to raise awareness about this problem. I appreciate the work you have done thus far, and I look forward to your response.


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