The Biological Implications of Social Networking
The Biologist 2009
Virtual social networking affects health. The immune system is compromised, tumors are less likely to regress, suicide is more common as is death from all causes, genes are altered, and the risk of cardiovascular disease is higher. Biologists are now able to measure concrete changes in the human body when real friendships are displaced by virtual social networking technologies. These technologies include Skype, MSN Messenger, Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, in addition to the overuse of email and texting.
Children are particularly at risk, as children who have less social interaction have stunted physiological, emotional, and social development. In spite of this, British children now spend more time alone with a television or computer screen than doing any other activity. The same screen has displaced the time parents are actively involved with their children by a factor of between five and ten. In more general terms, the young and not-so-young British venerate new technologies. In texting, wearing headphones, stroking iPhones, constant connection to the internet through mobile devices, and the increasing use of laptops in public and private settings, the British are tuned in, though tuned out to those around them.
At first glance, this innovative technological experiment upon British society would appear to be a social demographic issue. It would appear to have little to do with biology. But as we shall see, biologists, physicians, and those concerned with their own well-being would do well to be concerned with the biological effects of the screen.
According to the Office of National Statistics the number of people living alone has doubled over the last twenty years to 33% of the population. It also found that over a twenty-five-year period single people are three times more likely to commit suicide. Just being single confers a higher risk of mortality and disease. The Danish Institute of Public Health found that those who are married are strongly protected from all-cause mortality versus those who have never married, are divorced, or widowed. Such marital protection is dose dependent and cumulative: adding the number of years a person is married confers stronger protective effects upon health. Conversely, adding together the number of years a person is single or divorced confers deleterious effects upon health. Astonishingly, this cumulative positive or negative effect is passed from father to son affecting mortality in subsequent generations.
However, in order to fully comprehend the biological effects of social networking it is necessary to understand some biological science.
Cytokines are a compound secreted by immune cells which have encountered a harmful pathogen. They recruit additional immune cells to fight that pathogen. One important cytokine is called TNF-Alpha. It is associated with tumor regression and increased survival time in cancer patients. The activity of this particular cytokine is altered by social contact. Increased social contact leads to increased levels of TNF-Alpha, which in turn leads to increased survival time, especially in patients with breast cancer. In ovarian cancer, more social support leads to the higher cytotoxity of NK cells in the mono-nuclear cells of a patient’s blood. The higher cytoxity of these NK cells is critical in immune support, in fighting infections, and in putting cancer into remission.
Another category of cell is NKT cells, or natural killer T cells. They are essential for immunity, help guard against autoimmune diseases, including asthma, and protect against cancer. They are found in small white blood cells in the body and exhibit antitumor activity. Researchers have found that in cancer patients greater social support equals significantly higher levels of natural killer T cells, which in turn help in the fight against cancerous tumors.
While greater real-world social networks give measurable biological protection against disease, the reverse is also true: loneliness is strongly associated with low-grade peripheral inflammation. This is caused by lower levels of two types of cytokines called macrophage migratory inhibitory factor (MIF) and interleukin-6 (IL-6). In turn, these lower levels are linked to a range of inflammatory diseases including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus. Therefore, it is advantageous to have higher levels of these cytokines, and one of the best indicators of elevated interleukin-6 is regular religious group activity. Such activity is associated with lower rates of all-cause mortality. A word of caution is necessary here: simply showing up to a religious form of worship is not enough; there must also be meaningful social interaction.
Genes are also affected by our social behavior. The UCLA School of Medicine has identified 209 genes that are adversely affected by social isolation. These genes negatively affect leukocytes, which are the small white blood cells in the human immune system. The researchers further found that social interaction impacts upon genes involved in immune system activation, type I interferon response which fights viruses and tumors is decreased, and the transcription of genes that mount an anti-inflammatory response to illness and stress is curtailed. In contrast, gene transcription that promotes inflammatory disease is increased in those who are socially isolated.
In layman’s terms, poor social relations alter the expression of our genes, compromises our immune system, promotes inflammatory disease, and leads to physiological changes that are now known to influence morbidity and mortality.
A fuller social life leads to reduced morbidity, especially for ladies. A healthy social life reduces a person’s C-reactive protein level, and high C-reactive protein is increasingly seen as an indicator for cardiovascular disease. In happily married couples, blood pressure declines more when sleeping compared to single people. Similarly, in men with close friends, blood pressure returns quicker to baseline levels after a spike. While cardiovascular disease is a major health concern for the nation, over the next decade the rate of dementia is set to double. Unless new treatments or interventions are discovered the NHS will not survive the next twenty years. Yet, the Harvard School of Public Health, in a study of 16,638 subjects, found that memory loss among the least socially integrated declined at twice the rate of those who had a strong social life. Simply put, the risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease is double in lonely people. Finally, a thirteen-year-long study, also by the Harvard School of Public Health, demonstrated that real social interaction was as effective as exercise in lowering morality rates.
To conclude, the association between social connections, morbidity, and mortality is a growing public health concern for all industrialized nations. Virtual social networking and an increased use of digital communication technologies displaces real-world friendships, time spent with one’s spouse, and the amount of active attention directed towards one’s children. This displacement, as we have seen, confers real, measurable biological and physiological effects. Even in a family setting under the same roof, adults and children are spending increasing amounts of time alone with their screen or smartphone, rather than with each other. This virtual socializing is a poor substitute for real-world, physical, meaningful relationships. In the words of the Royal Society of Medicine: “Social networking encourages ignorance of networks that are non-virtual.” We should perhaps leave the final word to a team from Carnegie Mellon University, who undertook the seminal study “The Internet Paradox.” They found that a greater use of the internet and communication technologies leads to a decline in communication between family members, a decrease in one’s social circle, an increase in loneliness and depression, social disengagement, the worsening of mood, poor quality of life, and diminished physical and psychological health. And this was in 1998, before social networking had begun in earnest.