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Does Facebook give you cancer?

February 22nd, 2009

Dr Petra

You may have seen the fuss in the papers this week about new research that claims Social Networking sites are going to cause numerous health problems. You can read the press release for the research here, and the full paper here.

Predictably a lot of press coverage failed to address the quality of the research and span the findings to suggest using Facebook will give you cancer.

Media reports incorrectly referred to this report as a ‘study’, which wasn’t accurate as it’s actually a non-systematic literature review. A selective look at papers published in this area. There’s nothing inherently suspect about a non-systematic literature review, so long as you make it clear what your search terms and strategy was – and indicate you’ve not completed an exhaustive search of the published literature. It also helps if you set out what theoretical standpoint you used to filter your searching – for example if you feel particularly strongly about the issue you’re searching on (or if someone who is funding your search has a particular angle).

Although a lot of media coverage was hysterical and unhelpful, the good news is the research was subjected to thoughtful critical appraisal on numerous blogs and websites. Most noteworthy of the bunch were:
NHS Choices
and
Mind Hacks

The research was completed by Aric Sigman who seems to have a strange relationship with the media. On the one hand he has appeared within the media – for example as an Agony Uncle on BBC TV show ‘Live and Kicking’ and on other shows discusssing celebrities. He also acts as a consultant/spokesperson for PR-based research (some of his clients are listed on his site) which generate a lot of media coverage.

Yet on the other hand Mr Sigman appears convinced the media is harmful. Previously he has claimed children who watch television may be prone to numerous health problems including metabolic disorders and premature puberty. And now there’s the research that social networking is also apparently dangerous.

Journalists and the public can easily be confused by research that is seemingly published by a reputable journal, particularly if it suggests scary effects of media. It is a real worry that journals that you might expect to know better appear to be failing in the peer review process or publishing literature search based papers that are selective rather than systematic – and where any possible conflicts of interest are not declared.

We could have had a lot better coverage if journalists had read the original research, asked experts in social networking and health to read the paper and comment on it, and looked into the background of who was doing the study to check if there were any particular issues or angles they had that might have directed the review process.

Yes, there were some excellent blogs unpacking this research, but that was a case of locking the barn door after the horse had bolted. And I don’t just mean misleading media coverage. One has to ask when it’s clear the review was selective and problematic, why wasn’t this picked up during the review process – and why was the review published at all? Let’s all hope it wasn’t because a journal thought they’d get some publicity from a review that was guaranteed to set of scaremongering in the media. That would be unethical publishing, and bad science to boot.

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