Addiction to social networking sites could lead to changes in brain, even death, scientists warn.
A study published in Biologist
, the journal of the British Institute of Biology, details how face-to-face contacts with friends and family are being replaced by face-to-screen isolation, and how the lack of real-world social interaction can increase your susceptibility to a variety of diseases including, cancer, dementia, heart disease diabetes, influenza and rheumatoid arthritis.
In a related development, Baroness Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution, has said she has concerns that internet-obsessed children are losing the ability to concentrate and communicate away from the screen.
Together the two warnings seem to take a grim view of the trends in the West.
In "Well connected? The biological implications of 'social networking'," Dr. Aric Sigman, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, says that lack of social connection is connected with physiological changes, increased incidence of illness and higher premature mortality.
He goes on to cite studies showing that social networking use in the UK is now the highest in Europe and that the isolation it causes can lead to measurable physical changes - destructive
measurable physical changes.
The culprit is solitude. "Couples," writes Sigman, "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."
He reports that social scientists have determined that over the last two decades, "the number of people saying there is no one with whom they discuss important matters nearly tripled." The number of both kin and non-kin confidants is "dramatically smaller."
The average Briton, Sigman reports, now spends only about 50 minutes per day "interacting socially with other people."
We're also raising a generation of socially isolated kids. "Children now spend more time in the family home alone in front of TV/computer screens than doing anything else," he writes. The good doctor also cites a study that "reports that 25 per cent of British five-year olds own a computer or laptop of their own."
Besides, social isolation has been shown to impair the genes involved in the development of leukocytes, those helpful cells that float around in your blood, fighting disease.
Other studies have proven that social isolation reduces the effectiveness of tumor-fighting cytokines. Sigman cites a number of studies that have shown that socially active women with breast and ovarian cancer produce more and more-effective tumor-fighters, including the Natural Killer cells.
Isolation can induce loneliness which, Sigman says, has been linked to "low-grade peripheral inflammation." And that, he says, has been linked to inflammatory diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and autoimmune disorders.
"Lack of social connection or loneliness is also associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease," he continues, citing studies that link the production of the heart-healthy neuropeptide oxytocin to "hugging" and "touch."
It gets worse. Women with fewer social relationships experience strokes at more than twice the rate of those with more social relationships, and those with smaller social networks have narrower arteries - approximately one-third narrower, to be specific.
Real-world friendships help prevent heart attacks, he believes.
On her part, Baroness Greenfield, says popular sites like Facebook, Twitter and Bebo might be "infantilising" the minds of users, creating a generation of children who demand instant gratification, it is argued.
Regular web users displayed a need for constant reassurance typical of small babies, she said yesterday.
In an earlier House of Lords debate she warned that conversations in chat rooms, message boards and on networking websites were replacing the face-to-face interactions that are key to developing a child's sociability.
"I often wonder whether real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitised and easier screen dialogues, in much the same way as killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat has been replaced by the convenience of packages of meat on the supermarket shelf," she said.
"It is hard to see how living this way on a daily basis will not result in brains, or rather minds, different from those of previous generations."
Earlier this month Baroness Greenfield urged more research into a possible connections between high computer use among young people and the rising rates of autism.