STD: Social (Networking) Transmitted Disease?

Most of us have experienced the need to disinfect a virus-laden system — though a near-total immunity is one of the many benefits of being a Linux user. If public health officials in northern England are to be believed, though, the term "computer virus" may be in for a new meaning.

Social networking can do many things for users: help them kill vast amounts of time, expose career-ending after-hours antics, and sometimes even connect them to new and interesting people. According to the Teesside (UK) Director of Public Health Prof. Peter Kelly, they can also help users catch VD.

Syphilis, a potentially fatal sexually transmitted disease, has been on the rise in many developed nations over the last decade, after marked decline in the two decades leading up to the year 2000. That rise has apparently been particularly apparent in northern England of late, where cases have reportedly quadrupled. Searching for a cause for this dramatic immuno-explosion, Professor Kelly's staff have discovered that Facebook, of all things, is to blame for the increase in infections.

Teesside is an enclave of Facebook popularity — one of the site's most popular areas in the UK, apparently. The health department's staff have reportedly concluded that the site's popularity is providing a convenient means to arrange casual sex encounters, and more casual sex leads to syphilis run amok. "Social networking sites are making it easier for people to meet up for casual sex."

Facebook, unsurprisingly, isn't particularly thrilled with the revelation, and has been quick to say as much. “Facebook is no more responsible for STD transmission than newspapers are responsible for bad vision,” read a statement from the company, which reportedly described the suggestion as "ridiculous." The problem with the health department's theory — as Facebook pointed out — is that Professor Kelly and his staff have confused correlation with causality.

Such misconclusions, known to statisticians as spurious relationships, are not uncommon. A particularly well-known example is the connection between increased ice cream sales and an increase in drownings. The two often coincide, but neither causes the other — rather both are spurred by warm weather. That two (or more) situations exist simultaneously does not necessarily connect them to one another, or as the mathematically-minded might say: "Correlation does not imply causation."

Indeed, one could just as easily speculate that syphilis infections cause Facebook use. Perhaps all these suddenly STD'd individuals are seeking out solace from the similarly-afflicted, desperately founding Facebook groups and friending one another. The theory also lacks an explanation for why syphilis is the infection of choice — if the cause of the infections is social network-spawned sexualizing, why isn't VD on the rise in general? What is it about Facebook that selectively incites the syphilis sufferer's passions?

Perhaps most telling, however, are Kelly's own words: "I don't get the names of people affected, just figures, and I saw that several of the people had met sexual partners through these sites." A few flings and figures, professor, do not a Facebook epidemic make.

Image courtesy of Francois Bouly.

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