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Social networking and your health: What’s the big deal?

The benefits of social media need no further explanation, but what about the drawbacks? Is there really an associated health risk? The verdict is not yet out, but two British scientists think too much time online may be bad for your body – and your brain.

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“My fear is that these technologies are infantilizing the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment,” says Susan Greenfield, a pharmacology professor at Oxford University and the director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain.

Greenfield says social networking sites remind her of the way that “small babies need constant reassurance that they exist”.

She has gone so far as to tell Britain’s parliamentary chamber, the House of Lords, that social networking might be particularly harmful to children, and could be behind the observed rise in cases of attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder.

While Greenfield sparked a flurry of debate amongst professionals, in stepped author Dr. Aric Sigman of the Royal Society of Medicine in the UK. In a paper Dr. Sigman looked at what he called “the biological implications of social networking.” Like Greenfield, he is alarmed.

Sigman’s starting point is the fact that social interaction that takes place face to face, rather than face to screen, may be good for your body. In several measurable ways, people who are more social tend to be healthier, physically, than loners, so he has a point.

But as The Guardian tech editor Charles Arthur pointed out on The Guardian’s technology blog, Dr. Sigman does not seem to distinguish between interactive activities people engage in online, particularly on social networking sites, and the more passive consumption of media, like watching television or listening to music.

So overall the jury is still out. While social media may be rapidly evolving, the time spans required for long-term analysis of social media effects cannot be sped up, leaving much of the current chatter on the ill effect to theory.

Not all predictions discuss the extent to which social media has negative effects. On the contrary, the Pew Internet and American Life Project and the California HealthCare Foundation has shown that people fighting such illnesses are using social media to find information and connect with others who suffer similar ailments.

While it is not the social media itself that is improving health, but rather the access it provides to assist with treatment and support, it does reflect a positive trend.

According to the report, “living with chronic disease is also associated, once someone is online, with a greater likelihood to access user-generated health content such as blog posts, hospital reviews, doctor reviews, and podcasts. These resources allow an internet user to dive deeply into a health topic, using the internet as a communications tool, not simply an information vending machine.”.

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