Why Facebook probably isn’t harmful (and may even do good)

According to a report in today’s Daily Mail (and also picked up by various other newspapers in the UK), “social networking sites such as Facebook could raise your risk of serious health problems”. Apparently it’s to do with spending less time socialising with people face-to-face and could lead to a rise in illnesses including cancer. A big claim, and one that has attracted a lot of discussion today.

The claims are based on a paper by Dr Aric Sigman in Biologist, Journal of of Institute of Biology, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, appears to have been rather misrepresented in much of the press. Rather, Sigman looks at how two changes have happened in society concurrently: an increase in “electronic media use” and a decrease in “social interaction”. He also looks at how a decrease in social interaction can be associated with physiological changes, increased incidence of illness and higher premature mortality. Not quite the dramatic ‘Facebook causes cancer’ discussions that it seems to have prompted.

That this paper cause such reports and discussions should not come as a huge surprise. There has been a marked increase so far this year in discussion in UK mass media about social networking – from Facebook to Twitter. And many of these reports question the role that social networks and online communities can play in people’s lives.

For those of us involved in building and managing online communities, or those who are members of communities themselves, we know this just isn’t true.

Social networks help to bring people together. Sites like Facebook allow people to stay in touch with their friends and acquaintances, to build and maintain networks of people they might previously have lost touch with. They help people who move towns or countries stay up-to-date with their friends from back home, share photos and ideas with each other and extend their friendship. Social networks are ‘me’ spaces, they centre on the individual member, their network and connections. What they really allow people to do is to maintain a broader range of connections than has previously been possible. Whereas they might have lost touch with people they don’t see or talk to regularly, they can now keep in touch with them (either passively by just reading their updates or viewing their photos) or actively (by sharing ideas, photos and stories with them). This can have a huge benefit to many people. It shifts the nature of friendship by extending it, and allowing us to add to the circle of friends we see regularly with a wider group of friends we stay in touch with.

Online communities are different. They centre on topics, shared interests, experiences and goals. They are ‘us’ places where people get together because of this common element. Social networks allow us to extend and widen our circle of friends, keeping in touch with those we might otherwise have lost contact with. Online communities allow us to extend our friendship group, to find people who may have a similar niche interest to them, even if they don’t know them nor live anywhere near them. It’s easier for people with particular medical problems to find others in the same situation as them, people interested in the same topic to share their passion and people with a particular problem to find the answer they need. Online communities connect us with people through ideas and interests, without the need for us to know or meet these people. We can share and build on ideas with them and connect thanks to our mutual passion for something.

So online communities and social networks allow us to do very different things from what we could without them. They allow us to extend and maintain our friendship group, to connect with people with a shared passion and to make friends with people because of ideas and not because we happen to be be in the same place at the same time as them. All of this without having to be geographically close, nor indeed to want to discuss things at exactly the same time. For me this really augments and deepens our social interactions. It adds to our offline friendship groups and social interactions. It allows us to do things we just couldn’t do as easily before.

Maybe we are spending more time online, and maybe we are spending less time in offline social interactions. What cause and effect there is here I’m afraid I don’t know. What I do know is that online communities and social networks allow us to do new things in new ways. That has to be a good thing.

Subscribe to updates from the FreshNetworks Blog