Facebook, dementia, cancer…

February 22, 2009

Reluctant as I am to use the Daily Mail as my source, the article here suggests a little gleefully that Facebook can cause cancer, strokes, heart disease, dementia. It cites the research of a Dr. Aric Sigman, who says that people speak to each other face to face less frequently, and that the rot set in as long ago as 1987. Quite how Dr. Sigman has collected his data is not explained, and I’m not a subscriber to Biologist, the Institute of Biology’s journal, and am not likely to become one. Presumably he must have increased the face-to-face contact by conducting his survey (or did he worsen the problem by conducting it over the phone, or even on Facebook? Perish the thought).

The worm in the bud – or perhaps the bud’s absent butterfly – is a hormonal chemical called oxytocin, which apparently helps us to bond together. Facebook, says Dr. Sigman, has sapped us of oxytocin (I have to say I think the biologists could have come up with a cuddlier moniker for a substance that brings us into such proximity and thereby promotes such well-being: oxytocin sounds like something you might spray on greenfly, or worse). And without it, we are DOOMED. However, there are now so many things allegedly racing to wipe me from the face of the earth that I have become a lot more cynical. Surely there is a happy hormone which is saving me from extinction just by forcing me, yes, forcing me to play online chess, online scrabble, and online Lexulous (used to be Scrabulous till the court case, and now comes with a rack of eight letters)?

I admit that Facebook has put me in touch with a whole host of people about whom I know nothing whatever; but it has also put me back in touch with people I thought I’d never see again, including my children, as well as introducing me to a range of interesting and communally-minded writers and artists. I can even see what they look like (and, in the case of my children, at least some of what they have been doing). It is not clear to me how this is going to lead me to the Valley of the Shadow of Death, or make me keel over when I least expect it (my preferred method of exit).

Still, I defer to Dr. Sigman (does he smoke, by the way? Sounds like it). He probably has a new survey up his sleeve which shows how blogging can cause palpitations, scurvy, murrain and scarlet fever; how online teaching can make you blind and deaf; how Bebo brings on a bubo; and how watching YouTube can make you combust, spontaneously or otherwise.

It all made me think of the great scene in Woody Allen’s Sleeper, in which, after waking from 200 hundred years of sleep, the Allen character discovers that smoking and ice cream and fatty food have been found to be good for you. Hindsight is a beautiful thing. I couldn’t find the clip I wanted – not quite everything is online – shocking – but I did find this one, in which Allen tries to solve some of the mysteries which have been bugging the historians of the future:

I had better log off before I am found to be doolally.