Facebook Causes Cancer? Right. I’m Only Twittering From Now On

I swear that the Daily Mail only write these stories as fodder for Ben Goldacre, but surely they’ve reached a new self-parodying low with their Facebook causes cancer story.

Inspired by reading the excellent Bad Science book, and the fact that Ben posted the link, I read the original magazine article on which the story is based. Go on, have a look: it’s worth it if only to see the amusing use of tenuous stock photography.

This story comes to us from a chap by the name of Aric Sigman, who seems to have been banging on on a similar theme for some time: watching Batman will make your kids violent, he told us back in August, and TV is literally killing us he claimed back in 2005.

The main thrust of the article is the assertion that a lack of social interaction causes health problems. Even if this is true, though, I’m not sure how you get from that to the screaming headline claim that Facebook causes cancer: why is online social networking worse than the offline kind? And yes, the screaming headline is the Daily Mail’s, but Sigman subtitles his article with the heading “The biological implications of ‘social networking'” despite the fact that he doesn’t seem to say anything about ‘social networking’ in the Facebook sense. Further, the Institute of Biology’s press release tells us that:

In our latest issue of Biologist, Dr Aric Sigman warns us of the dangers of sacrificing old-fashioned social contact for the current trend towards more online interaction. It appears that there is no substitute for face-to-face contact with our family, friends and communities, when it comes to maintaining good health. A Facebook poke cannot replace a good old hug, it seems.

I’m not sure the article says that at all: perhaps this was written by someone who hadn’t read it.

But anyway, if we’re going to claim that social interaction has health benefits, wouldn’t it be the other way around–shouldn’t we be looking to Facebook, MySpace and Twitter as a valuable means of bringing together people who might otherwise have been lacking any kind of social interaction at all?

Talking about dementia, Sigman refers to research conducted by the Harvard School of Public health that

…examined the influence of social integration, including frequency of social interaction, on changes in memory in 16,638 subjects aged 50 and older. Ertel et al (2008) concluded that memory loss among the least integrated declined at twice the rate as among the most integrated.

So what has that got to do with “social networking”? Maybe the non-integrated group were huge Facebook fans, but I think that’s unlikely given that the study’s title was “Social Integration on Preserving Memory Function in a Nationally Representative US Elderly Population” (my italics).

Elsewhere, he talks about people with less social interaction having reduced immunity to diseases, and makes claims such as:

Lack of social connection or loneliness is also associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

I’m guessing, but is it not possible that people who are either lonely or don’t have a big social circle might also happen to lead sedentary lifestyles: isn’t it the “sitting around on your arse all day” bit of watching TV that causes the health problems, rather than anything intrinsically harmful about watching too much television.

I could go on, picking holes in the article and looking at more examples where the effect doesn’t seem to be due to the claimed cause, but I think I’ve already spent more time on this than it’s really worth.

It’s just rubbish. Don’t believe everything you read in the papers, kids.