Why is everyone loving the idea that social networking is creating a society of disconnected zombies? Aric Sigman's recent (and wrong) link-baiting paper suggests that too much time on MySpace could give you cancer.
No, not because of the rays beaming from the screen into your brain. And Sigman doesn't explicitly say social networking causes cancer. His idea is that screen time is taking the place of face time, keeping us from enjoying the proven health benefits that come when we hang out with people we trust -- including elevated levels of oxytocin. Because oxytocin is central to the body's anti-stress system, reduced opportunities for pleasant social exchanges could lead to chronic stress and the host of ills that afflict the lonely.
He's right about the role that being with other people plays in our physical health, but Sigman gets the rest of it wrong by conflating watching television with social networking. In fact, social networking can be one of the healthiest things we do. Here's why:
First, there's evidence that we experience what takes place in cyberspace as being as real as what we do in meat space. This is something we know intuitively: Remember the AT&T ads for telephone long-distance services? "Reach out and touch someone," they said. I'm sure Sigman gets the warm and fuzzies when he talks to his mom on the phone; the sensory gestalt on Facebook is different, but the effect can be the same.
Our brains have evolved to be exquisite at social interactions, and they're plenty smart enough to extrapolate from the computer experience. When Nicole Speer and Jeffrey Zacks of Washington University scanned the brains of people while they read fiction, they found that their brain activity was much like it would have been if the subjects had actually been taking part in the scenes they read. And the games researchers use to study trust are computer-based. In Paul Zak's lab, when test subjects inhale oxytocin and then interact via computer, they respond just as they would face-to-face.
Finally, Sigman forgets a crucial point: While social networking may sometimes replace F2F, more often, it's an addition. It lets us keep in touch better. My friend is in Argentina for three weeks. In the olden days, I might have gotten a postcard or two. Today, I get photos, video and VoIP calls from her, letting me build up a richer and more current image of her. What's more rewarding? A postcard, or a video call where she shows me what she bought at the market today?
Social media can be a lifeline for times when we can't easily get physically close to someone. Seniors and disabled folks have enjoyed the social contact available via modem since the pre-web days of dial-up bulletin boards. It may be 3 a.m. in the "real" world, or in the dark night of my soul. But I can still reach out and touch someone.
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