Social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Bebo could be harming people’s health because their users spend less time with people face-to-face, an expert has claimed.
Sites such as Facebook, MySpace, and Bebo set out to enrich social lives, but end up keeping people apart, according to Dr Aric Sigman, who claims that the lack of real social networking, involving face-to-face interaction, may have wide-ranging biological effects.
Writing in latest issue of Biologist, the journal of the Institute of Biology, Dr Sigman suggests that social isolation could…upset immune responses, hormone levels, and the function of arteries, and influence mental performance. This could increase the risk of health problems as serious as cancer, strokes, heart disease, and dementia.
He says: ‘Social networking is the internet’s biggest growth area, particular among young children.’
He said that many British children have a laptop or computer in their room by the age of five and they have their own social networking sites, such as the BBC’s MyCBBC.
Research suggested that the number of hours people spent interacting face-to-face had fallen dramatically since 1987 as electronic media use had increased. Interacting ‘in person’ has effects on the body not seen when writing emails, claims Dr Sigman.
He adds: ‘When we are “really” with people different things happen. It’s probably an evolutionary mechanism that recognises the benefits of us being together geographically.’
Levels of hormones such as the so-called cuddle chemical oxytocin, which promotes bonding, altered according to whether people were in close contact or not. Studies had shown that children taught via video broadcasts or DVDs did not learn as well as they did when given lessons by a real teacher.
Dr Sigman said 209 ‘socially regulated’ genes had been identified, including ones involved in the immune system, cell proliferation and responses to stress. Their activity may account for higher rates of inflammatory disease and other health problems seen in socially isolated individuals.
Electronic media were also undermining the ability of children and young people to learn vital social skills and read body language. ‘I am worried about where this is all leading. It’s not that I’m old fashioned in terms of new technology, but the purpose of any new technology should be to provide a tool that enhances our lives,’ he says.
It’s been a bad week for Facebook after it was forced do a U-turn over changes to its privacy rules, which users claimed would have given the social networking site rights to pictures and profile information and hold on to them even if accounts were deleted.
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