Monday, February 23, 2009

How the Internet will kill you

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.


Ruby Apolline said...

Most interesting. Like you, I think these researchers started with a conclusion and cherry-picked information to support it. They also seem to have forgotten that correlation does not equal causation. Back to school with them!

On my part, I wonder if the Internet overstimulates--a person could conceivably be awake and interacting 24 hours out of 24. I might attribute the high blood pressure, dementia and sleep deprivation the researchers cite to stress on the system from excess sensory input, rather than a lonely screen. I think I remember a study where rats were kept awake for several days with music playing constantly and they all went crazy.

I'm reading a book about MMORPGs in which the writer (an economist) says something to the effect of our brains are trained to treat each piece of sensory input as "real," so we instinctively become involved in on-line interactions with the same physiological responses as we would off-line interactions. Perhaps there's some sort of pressure release mechanism that occurs in physical interactions that is absent in on-line ones, such that adrenalin and whatnot builds up in the brain and body to detrimental effect. Someone should study this!

Also, the immunity discussion could be true in a sense: the more time you spend with the same group of people, the more likely you are to develop antibodies to shared germs--a sort of herd immunity. Data point: the first several months of my new job, I caught every cold that blew through the place. I also note that many of the people I work with have children, who are, among other things, seething germ reservoirs.

But were I to take another job, or move to a new neighborhood or even live with new people, it's likely my previous herd immunity would be of little use. So I'm not sure that immunological analyses are particularly meaningful.

vet said...

Thank you, Ruby. I think "researchers" is perhaps over-stating what they've done. This isn't a research paper, it's a summary article. Nothing wrong with that in itself, but it's too bitty and shallow to be a good one.

Interesting about physiological responses to online interactions. That would help to explain why online interactions tend to displace physical ones - they feel very much the same.

But, the biologists claim, those responses are only part of the story. There are also actual biological interactions on a physical level, which don't get replicated online.

The kind of overstimulation you describe - I'm sure it can happen, although the "24-hour" situation is surely an extreme case. (I can imagine myself doing it when I was 20, if I'd had the kind of access we have now - but not often, even then.) But - maybe it does encourage you to stay up just a little longer every night, which would have a greater long-term effect.