John Walker's Electronic House

How Using Facebook Could Raise Your Risk Of Making Friends

by on Feb.20, 2009, under Rants

It is with serendipitous timing that I was recently having a discussion with friends about whether online communication has any effect on face-to-face interaction. It seems to be a received wisdom that people who spend time online are therefore spending less time in the physical company of other humans. But this is something that has never sat right with me. Because it seems to me that if anything has changed in the last fifteen years, it’s been a massive increase in the amount of communication we all conduct. And while this is only a guess, based on my experience and knowledge, it seems to me that communication leads to interacting with people.

This came to a head today with the Daily Mail’s phenomenally silly headline, “How using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer“. Of course, the Daily Mail suggests that anything and everything might send our cells mutating willy nilly, possibly dragging down the value of our houses along the way. Hopefully Facebook will be suing Dacre and the Mail into a black hole over this astonishingly stupid reporting. Especially since the article the piece was based on never mentions Facebook, let alone Facebook-like sites specifically. However, the article does make the claim that online communication decreases offline communication, and this, he suggests, in turn leads to a lower quality of life and an increased risk of morbidity. It’s quite a trip from using Facebook to cancer. And it’s a trip that the Aric Sigman’s paper doesn’t manage to cite.

Reading it earlier today, it quickly became obvious this was not a scientific paper, but rather a person editorialising, supposing, based on un-cited information. While he begins with a splurge of references, these suddenly dry up when he goes on to make statements such as,

“Couples now spend less time in one another’s company and more time at work, commuting, or in the same house but in separate rooms using different electronic media devices. Parents spend less time with their children than they did only a decade ago. Britain has the lowest proportion of children in all of Europe who eat with their parents at the table. The proportion of people who work on their own at home continues to rise.”

We’re supposed to take his word on all this? These are some hefty claims to be making. (And does his house only have one plug socket per room?) In fact, it reads an awful lot like a list of things someone might have read in a paper like, for instance, the Daily Mail. He then goes on to talk about the quite separate matter of genes and loneliness and death. Fortunately for me, someone a lot smarter and informed has written a splendid piece going through the article and pointing out exactly these things, as well as highlighting when Sigman’s article is more reasoned.

What I’m interested to know is if there’s ever been any research conducted, or data published, to demonstrate that social networking/instant messaging/carrier pigeons, have any effect on the amount of face-to-face time people have. (There has, and it doesn’t support Sigman – see below.) It seems to be an assumed fact, for which I can find no evidence, and – anecdotally at least – seems completely counter-intuitive. The more time people spend in communication with each other, the more likely they are, surely, to arrange to see each other, stay in contact with more people, be invited to more things, etc. It seems a claim that’s getting made far too often without any corroborating evidence.

This claim most especially is made of teenagers, what with their WiiStation 360s and their mobile texting machines, and a TV and computer in each corner of their rooms. Teenagers, we keep being told, are spending less time in the company of their peers. Can we please put an end to this nonsense? Teenagers are forced, by law, to spend six hours a day, five days a week, in the company of many hundreds of their peers. If they went home and hunched over their computers all evening, they’d still be spending half their waking lives in a social environment. Never mind that the teenagers I’ve known and worked with have never done any such thing. They have filled in the gaps between hanging out by communicating even more, via the internet or their phones.

I have only anecdotal claims, which is why my overall cry is for some sensible research to be conducted into the effects of the internet on sociability (Sigman’s paper, amazingly, cites papers about the internet from 1998!). But in my experience, the opportunities of online communication have led to enormous numbers of opportunities to socialise in ways that would simply have never happened without the internet. I have friends on the other side of the world whom I visit every year, who without the internet I would neither have ever met, nor stayed in contact with, let alone maintained significant friendships. I have friends from my childhood, and friends from my early 20s, with whom I’m still in contact because of Facebook, Twitter, Friends Reunited (could their be a more appropriately named site for challenging the received opinion?), blogs, instant messaging and email. These are people I still see because of the communication opportunities of the internet. Then there’s my regular social groups with whom I meet up most regularly. I can think of very few real-world meetings that were not coordinated online, whether an invite to a party via Facebook (something I find abhorrent, as it happens – email ME for goodness sake, if you want me at your party), or a quick hello to arrange to go for a drink, meet for lunch, and so on. Want to get more immediate and specific? I wouldn’t have popped into my housemate Craig’s room for a chat if he hadn’t IMd me to come see something on his computer. (Sure, he could have shouted for me to come in too, but IM seems a lot more civil.)

From Facebook gatherings to Improv Everywhere stunts, online dating to the London Twestival, people meet up with people because of the internet. And I’m absolutely certain that there are also legions who stay in their rooms, never leaving, but chat online. I’d guess, without proof, that these are the people who would perhaps have stayed in on their own without chatting before. They could be a lot more social with the internet too.

But I might be quite wrong. It doesn’t seem impossible that there could be an overriding negative effect on people’s social lives. Perhaps people spend less time in company because they rush home to chat to others online. Perhaps people do less to counter feelings of loneliness if they can hold back the worst of it with electronic chatting. I don’t know. And I don’t know because you never hear about any serious investigations into this. Which leads to unsubstantiated nonsense like the suggestion Facebook gives you cancer.

EDIT: Well, look, there is some evidence! This fantastic post on Mind Hacks tears the Sigman paper a new one, and links to studies that have shown the positive social effects of Facebook. There’s a bunch more links on there. Found via Bad Science.

7 Comments for this entry

  • Masked Dave

    I agree entirely. When I was in school I lived in a village in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of kids I didn’t get on with, I had only a few friends at school.

    The Internet was my social lifeline. First the PG Gamer Forums and then the wonderful, magical (still the nicest place on the Internet by far).

    This Christmas was spent down at my Grandma and Aunt’s place in Kent. Me and my dad spent the whole first day thinking they didn’t even have Internet, we were almost junkies jonesing for a fix. My Aunt asked what I’d actually be doing and the first thing I said was talking to my friends.

    She snobbishly replied, ‘well I just speak to my friends on the phone or see them in real life.’ My only reaction was ‘but that’s so limited!’. Of course, I do all of those things too, but I also spend so much time talking to those same people, and so many more online. I can talk to more than one person at a time, I can talk about TV shows with friends I haven’t seen since Uni while I’m watching them in my lounge without stopping the show.

    Hell, my best friend and I do our podcast together every week even though we live in opposite ends of the country, and if it weren’t for the Internet, we’d have never kept up contact as much as we have.

    And since leaving University, all of my current circle of real life friends have been made via the Internet in some way.

    If it weren’t for the Internet, I’d be lonely and socially retarded. I’d also almost never get laid.

    I disagree with you about the Facebook invite thing though, you’re taking that far too personally. I don’t even know most of my friends email address and much prefer to get a Facebook invite. I can export it to my iCal, view the details from anywhere, talk about what pub/time/whatever people will be meeting with everyone attending. Its just so much more useful than an emailed invite that’d probably be sent to my spam folder.

  • John Walker

    My issue with Facebook invites, to get slightly sidetracked, is the degree of separation it puts in. I believe the internet enhances communication and increases sociability. However, I believe it does this because it’s people communicating directly with each other.

    That’s why nobody likes a mass email, and why people always begin them, “Sorry about the mass email…” It’s impersonal. But at least an email is arriving directly at MY address. A Facebook invite is a mass email that doesn’t even get sent to me. It’s that extra degree of distance that I find so impersonal. (I realise you could argue I’m as logged into my account on Gmail as I would be on Facebook, but I maintain that email is much more personal than a profile on a social networking site – perhaps that is my delusion, but I think an email address has a lot of equivalence with a phone number, that a Facebook account does not).

  • Masked Dave

    I disagree, but then I don’t mass invite. I don’t think facebook lets you. You have to select each individual person you want to invite.

    You can argue that’s the same thing, but if I was sending emails, I’d just go through and add everybody from my address book to the one email.

    I would equate Facebook and email as the same thing really. I’ve often heard people say they wish they could use Facebook *as* their email rather than having to log into two things.

  • Masked Dave

    And one final thing. What’s annoyed me the most about this. BBC Radio 4’s Today Show/PM Show/Six O’Clock News reported this link. I’ll admit I didn’t hear the full thing (and can’t remember which it was, I listen to all three in the car so they run into each other in my memory), so maybe they did the right thing and investigate and dismiss, but I hold up Radio 4 as the best source for news in this country bar none, but even they fall into the Modern Technology = Weird and Scary trap. It’s saddens me.

  • Lu-Tze

    I have a similar issue with the Facebook/MySpace event invitation thing… Whilst it has meant that i’ve managed to trek back across the country many times to see groups of friends, I felt pressured into getting accounts on the social networking sites because I knew that otherwise these events would pass me by.

    So i’m forced into this method of communication, and then what? I have to rely on it. I have to make sure it forwards all pertinent happenstances to me because otherwise people will say “Well, I sent you a message on Facebook!”.

    So, in summary, I think it’s a double edged sword. There’s plenty of people that I would never meet or talk to that social networking sites enable, but equally many of the times when someone would otherwise call me and we’d have a long chat about stuff, or at the least drop me a text and start a conversation that way, it is now degraded into a single Facebook invite, to which I replay “Yes” “No” or “Maybe”.

  • NM

    Facebook’s danger is not in the fact it either encourages or discourages meaningful relationships. Its danger is in its proprietising and privatising the Internet into a walled garden, where you are merely advertising fodder. Anyone who uses the service for anything other than the most trivial of purposes is on a hiding to nothing.

    As an example, my brother’s girlfriend used the site as the sole repository for her photos. Then, her account was suddenly deleted because she was falsely reported for spamming. Bang! All gone! No-one to whom she could appeal. No backups. No process. That’s the danger of Facebook. It’s a rapacious company with a rapacious CEO with a rather unsavoury business model. Better that an Open social network be formed based on open protocols, peer to peer networking and so on. It’s being worked on.

  • David Jeanneret

    This whole “online encourages offline interaction” thing was the exact subject of my dissertation. Unfortunately I didn’t prove an overwhelming connection between the online activity of a group and an increase in their sense of community and offline activity – which is obviously what i wanted to prove!
    Bah – research sucks.
    Email me if you want a copy