Death by Poking?

Social networking seems all-encompassing these days, as we find ourselves tweeting madly from smartphones, joining the group of the moment on Facebook, and leaving little bits of our lives recorded on the pages of Flickr. With the volume of socialization that issues forth from the myriad of social networks now available, one can easily begin to wonder if someday we'll all be swept to our deaths by the never-ending flow. If one psychologist is to be believed, however, while we won't drown in a flood a tweets, our social networking habits just might be what kills us.

The disturbing pronouncement comes from Dr. Airc Sigman, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine and an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, who believes time spent social networking online is reducing face-to-face interactions and ruining our health. According to Dr. Sigman, all those hours spent friending on Facebook can cause genes to alter the way they operate, subvert immune system response, upend hormone levels, discombobulate the function of arteries, and unhinge mental performance. (We can't really argue with the last one — after a few too many hours on Twitter, any of us could come unhinged.)

To back up his claims, the good doctor has called upon research showing that face-to-face interactions have declined steeply since 1987 — which obviously implicates social networks, which first came into widespread use in the early 2000s. Dr. Sigman also claims that "different things happen" when we interact in person — a claim our experience suggests is true — and that these in-person "things" are an evolutionary cue to, effectively, encourage us into herds. "Much of it isn't understood," he says — by anyone, it would seem — "but there does seem to be a difference between 'real presence' and the virtual variety." The responsible herd hormone — termed the "cuddle chemical" by CNet — is oxytocin, better known for its dilative actions during birth and breastfeeding, though it has been linked to arousal, trust, generosity, bonding, and maternal instincts. Interestingly, there is research to suggest that memory functions, including learning and recall, are impaired by increased oxytocin levels.

We don't doubt for a moment that excessive social networking, like excessive internet use in general and excessive anything else — there is a reason they call it excessive, after all — can have a negative impact on ones health. We remain skeptical, however, that a bit too much tweeting is going to cause mass mutations, leaving us all with third arms growing out of our foreheads, or cause our arteries to suddenly decide to form a Beatles cover band instead of manning our circulatory systems. Dr. Sigman himself seems to be skeptical too, as in the last four years, he has alternately blamed too much television, Batman movies, and free speech for society's ills. Indeed, if the learnéd doctor is to be believed, the solution to obesity, Alzheimer's disease, and premature puberty — did we miss a memo on an epidemic of four-year-olds with deepening voices? — is simply to turn off the television — and presumably, the Facebook.

For our part, we think we'll go on friending and tweeting, and just turn off something else...

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