Spending too much time online, apparently, causes high blood pressure. Also heart disease, cancer, dementia, sleep deprivation, diabetes, and Dr House's favourite: lupus.
This story comes to us from Biologist, the strictly non-sensationalist journal of the British Institute of Biology, via El Reg. I'm torn, for a response, between "you're making it up as you go along" and "well, duh."
I think this conflict arises from the outrageously wide remit of the paper. It's as if the author were briefed to look at all the studies linking health effects to either online behaviour or social interaction of any sort, to find all the possible biological connections between "getting ill" and "spending too much time typing away at a lonely screen", and then write a paragraph on each one. There's no coherence to it.
In fact it looks very like dozens of articles I published in my time on a similar journal, although of course "social networking" hadn't been invented then. (And in justice to myself: if they were this bad, I'd generally send them back to the author and tell him to try again. I was a better editor than this.)
In short: the part I can both understand and believe says that (a) if you spend a lot of your time and energy "socialising" online, you don't spend as much time and energy meeting people physically; and (b) spending time physically with other people, preferably in groups, is important for health.
This much seems (to me) obvious. What's not so obvious is the detailed process by which loneliness translates into illness. The paper touches on the usual culprits - stress, depression, lack of confidants, and so forth - but also covers a wide range of biological mechanisms. Sadly, it doesn't provide enough information on any of these for me to understand what it's talking about.
Take the discussion of leucocytes and cytokines, for instance. Citing "Recent research at the UCLA School of Medicine", it seems to be saying that social interaction increases the efficiency of our immune systems. In other words, not only do we share germs with other people, but also immunities to germs that they've previously been exposed to. To me that seems far-fetched, but I don't know enough to argue it either way.
"Regular religious group participation", it says intriguingly but uninformatively, "is a significant predictor of elevated IL-6 [interleukin-6] levels and lower subsequent 12-year mortality." So there you go. It's not the power of prayer, it's the power of churchgoing; it doesn't matter what god you worship, so long as you do it with others.
What makes this paper frustrating, for me, is the shopping-list feel. The authors make no attempt to conceal the fact that they started out from what (you might think) should have been their conclusion - that online life increases physical isolation, which is bad - and gathered evidence only in support of that belief. They make no attempt to develop arguments from one point to another, nor to explore alternative explanations of any of their "findings", nor to explore the full implications of what they did find, or otherwise present any kind of balanced picture. So although I'm inclined to believe that they're probably right, for limited values of "right", I'm left frustrated and dissatisfied.
And now, instead of heading down to the pub to bore the earlobes off some poor sap in real life, I'm blogging about it. That'll show 'em.