A report published in Biologist claims that the Internet can make you sick. Literally. The report by Dr. Aric Sigman, though shrouded sometimes in tones of Luddite existentialism, proposes a compelling thesis: due to the growing use of electronic media, human beings spend far less time physically socializing, which changes us. Genetically. The use of electronic media physically isolates us from others. Sigman cites UK statistics showing that, between 1987 and 2007, the amount of time individuals spent using electronic media doubled, growing from four hours a day to eight. In that 20-year period, the time devoted to social interaction dropped from six hours a day to just over two. The growing disconnection from physical social networks, due to our increased isolation from others, whether because of watching TV or using the Internet, alters us physiologically, by diminishing our social connections.
“Social connection, both objective and subjective, is increasingly associated with physiological changes known to influence morbidity and mortality,” says Sigman.
Recent research has linked social isolation and the production of white blood cells. High levels of isolation led to up 209 genes that were ‘differentially expressed,’ leading to decreased anti-inflammatory reactions, as well as the promotion of inflammation in disease and stress.
Social contact also helps tumor regression and prolongs the lives of cancer patients, due to higher levels of cytokines produced by the bodies of the more social. Morbidity and mortality are also increased by social isolation.
Sigman presents a lot more compelling evidence of the ways socialization positively affects our physical health.
While he fails to take into consideration the social connections that are actually facilitated by Internet social networking, and he doesn’t tie technology and health together except by analogy (the correlation between increased electronic media use and decreased social interaction), Sigman sheds light on risks to physical health we don’t normally associate with tech.
The focus on TV and the Internet also makes you wonder about the cultural bias of studies like these, which always leave out books, which are way more isolating than TV and the Internet (how many of you talk on the phone and read Joyce simultaneously?)
The entire report is available in pdf at Biologist, which also hosts other Sigman articles specifically treating television's effects on biology.