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From the Daily Mirror:

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.

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.

How using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer

So in practice (my summary) the claim is that Social Networking leads to isolation and isolation leads to diseases.

Is any of this piece of reporting by the Daily Mail, and the claim by Dr. Sigman based on any scientific fact? If not, what is the doctor in the news story actually claiming? Are his claims supported by evidence?

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    Wouldn't reading the Daily Mail instead of meeting people have exactly the same effect? – matt_black Nov 9 '12 at 21:47
  • @matt_black There's also another DM article that claims that reading websites that give bad medical advice on the internet can potentially cause cancer. Go figure! :-) – Sklivvz Nov 9 '12 at 21:54
  • I wonder how this claim can be refuted. I doubt that there are reputable studies on this, is the Daily Mail even considered a legitimate source? I mean what if they write "Confusing coke with baking powder might lead to cupcakes growing out your nose". Do we really have to cite studies for everything? – Baarn Nov 9 '12 at 22:13
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    Whats your actual question in this case? That social networks have effects on mental health (what the citation suggest) or that they cause cancer (what the title and the link suggest)? – Baarn Nov 9 '12 at 22:25
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    @Informaficker I've tried to clarify as per your suggestion. – Sklivvz Nov 10 '12 at 0:19
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No, the opposite is true.

Firstly, Dr. Aric Sigman himself has disclaimed the contents of the article:

Dr Sigman has published other papers. Well Connected?: The Biological Implications of 'Social Networking', is published in The Biologist, Vol 56(1), the journal of the Society of Biology.

Note: This paper has been misrepresented by some news reports, websites and bloggers as claiming that social networking causes cancer or disease. This is not true. The paper addresses the extent to which time online may be displacing face-to-face contact, and that lack of social connection is associated with physiological changes, increased incidence of illness and higher premature mortality.

Aric Sigman website

More in general, even his claims on his websited have been heavily criticised by Dr. Ben Goldacre on his blog, where he provides three counter-example studies:

1. Caplan SE published a paper in 2007 entitled: “Relations among loneliness, social anxiety, and problematic Internet use.” Dr Sigman did not quote this paper in his article. Why not? “The results support the hypothesis that the relationship between loneliness and preference for online social interaction is spurious.”

2. Sum et al published a paper in 2008 with the title: “Internet use and loneliness in older adults“. Dr Sigman chose not to quote this paper. Why not? I don’t know, although it does contain the line “greater use of the Internet as a communication tool was associated with a lower level of social loneliness.”

3. Subrahmanyam et al published a paper in 2007 called “Adolescents on the net: Internet use and well-being.” It features the line “loneliness was not related to the total time spent online, nor to the time spent on e-mail”. Dr Sigman ignored it.

Another doctor, neurologist Vaughan Bell criticises Sigman on the Mindhacks blog:

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.

[...]

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.

Finally, another paper completely disproving this claim that social media lead to loneliness (and consequently to disease), in fact finding that the opposite is true:

Based on the evidence presented in this article, it is plausible to assume that online self-disclosure accounts for the positive relationship between online communication and social connectedness.

Social Consequences of the Internet for Adolescents by Patti M. Valkenburg and Jochen Peter, Amsterdam School of Communications Research ASCoR, University of Amsterdam, 2009.

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