You 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.