Saturday, December 05, 2009

Facebook causes cancer! The Big Debate

Fireworks in Berlin at 'The Big Debate', where Aric Sigman and I locked horns on the question:

“The increasing use of technology and social software is damaging students' minds and undermining the benefits of traditional methods of learning”.

I argued that it improved students’ minds and enhanced the benefits of traditional education.

'Facebook causes cancer' was a headline from the Daily Mail this year, sparked off by a paper written by Aric Sigman, in a peer reviewed journal called ‘Biologist’ (Well connected? The biological implications of ‘social networking’). Ben Godacre, Doctor and award winning journalist, author of Bad Science, and a debunker of some renown, took Sigman to task on Newsnight. It’s as good a demolition job as I’ve ever seen on Newsnight and I’ve seen a few. Even Paxman thought he was a nutter! (Also watch out for Susan Greenfield's admission that there is NO EVIDENCE.)

Sigman's Cherry picking

Back to the debate. I followed Goldacre’s line and attacked the original paper on the grounds that the papers Sigman cited did NOT mention social networking and were largely about medical effects in people over the age of fifty, in some cases even older.

Cole SW et al (2007) Social regulation of gene expression in human leukocytes

No mention of ‘social networking’

Tiny sample aged 50-67

Lamkin D M (2008) Positive psychosocial factors and NKT cells in ovarian cancer patients

No mention of ‘social networking’

Study of women over 65

Rutledge T et al (2004) Social networks are associated with lower mortality rates among women with suspected coronary disease

No mention of ‘social networking’

Mean age was 59

Cohen S et al (1997) Social ties and susceptibility to the common cold

No mention of ‘social networking’

1997 way before social networks!

Ertel K A et al (2008) Effects of Social Integration on Preserving Memory Function in a Nationally Representative US Elderly Population

No mention of ‘social networking’

US sample of elderly adults


On top of this, on one citation, he deliberately failed to mention that the authors Kraut R et al (1998) (Internet Paradox: A Social Technology That Reduces Social Involvement and Psychological Well-Being?) who had discovered small negative effects of using Internet on measures of social involvement and psychological well-being among Pittsburgh families in 1995-1996, had in Kraut R et al (2001) (Internet Paradox Revisited) had changed their minds, “In a 3-year follow-up of the original sample, we find that negative effects dissipated over the total period. We also report findings from a longitudinal study in 1998-99 of new computer and television purchasers. This new sample experienced overall positive effects of using the Internet on communication, social involvement, and well-being.” That is more than cherry-picking by Sigman, it’s deception.

In fact the evidence, that Sigman knew about, but deliberately ignored points to the opposite:

1. Caplan SE (2007) “Relations among loneliness, social anxiety, and problematic Internet use.”

“The results support the hypothesis that the relationship between loneliness and preference for online social interaction is spurious.”

2. Sum et al (2008) “Internet use and loneliness in older adults“.

greater use of the Internet as a communication tool was associated with a lower level of social loneliness.”

3. Subrahmanyam et al (2007) “Adolescents on the net: Internet use and well-being.

“loneliness was not related to the total time spent online, nor to the time spent on e-mail”

Byron review

Tanya Byron was commissioned to look specifically at these issues by the UK government and in a well conducted and level-headed research project, collected a” vast array of evidence…commissioned three literature reviews:

up to date research evidence on children’s brain development – Prof. Mark Johnson Birkbeck University

comprehensive review on the vast body of child development research - Professor Usha Goswami Cambridge University

current media effects literature in relation to video games and the internet – Prof. David Buckingham Institute of Education"

Annexes F, G, and H and at

Some of her conclusions, relevant to this debate, were that, “there is no clear evidence of desensitisation in children”, “children actively involved in sport play on consoles for same amount of time as those who are not” and “technology specifically useful; for those with learning difficulties and disabilities”.

US Department of Education Study

In support of my proposition that technology enhanced education I then quoted from the US Department of Education’s study ‘Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies’ which looked at data from 1996 to 2008, selecting rigorous, measurable effects, random assignment and the existence of controls, “The meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving traditional face-to-face instruction.” and “Instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction.”

Finally I pointed toYouTube EDU, iTUNES U, Open Learn, MITOPENCOURSEWARE, Project Gutenberg and the Hole in the Wall project to show that there are some wonderful examples of enhancement.


Aric Sigman is the academic version of Sue Palmer, cherry-picking luddites who have books to sell, with titles like ‘Toxic Childhood’ and The Spoilt Child’. They’re part of a ‘parenting industry’ that creates and thrives on fear. It’s people like them that are promoting helicopter parenting and risk averse attitudes that lead to kids being locked up indoors, not the technology.

That's was pretty much my case. I only had 10 minutes, so summed up with a quote from Douglas Adams,

everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really. Apply this list to movies, rock music, TV, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.”

We won the vote. I have to say that it was a great format and really got the juices flowing. Conferences should have more of this.

One last point. Sigman claimed that kids spend on average 7.5 hours a day online. I challenged this but he stuck to his guns. Now I don't know about you, but but mine would have to switch on the minute they got back from school and stay focussed until midnight every night without going to the toilet, eating etc. This figure alone makes him look ridiculous.


Here’s some tweets and a blog post on the debate:

Why blame technology for something that depends on the home environment, parents must take responsibility for childrens learning

read his book on 'bad science' and then you'll see through people like aric

by the way, nasty of Aric to slag Ben Goldacre..he's not a journalist but a doctor and specialises in statistical misuse

Good fuel for a hot debate - extremely well selected speakers

Donald Clark : technologies helps inclusion. Very important

The Brits are demonstrating how to run a controversial debate. Fun.

Lectures on YouTubeEdu are improving education. Teachers get a larger audience

Donald Clark: USDE meta study found good support of e-learning

Donald Clark: Aric's studies based on the elderly, not using social networking

Sigman uses sources for his theory that are not about social networking

Sigman does not understand that social software is very social

listening to Aric Sigman I start to think we should call it OFFLINE Educa next year.

Aric Sigman: North Korea as the model for modern education - teachers get respect!

The sessions were rounded off with a 'debate' on the proposal that the internet is destroying our children's minds. A motion led by Aric Sigman who shouted and attempted to scare everyone. His extremely aggressive style offended some, particularly those unfamiliar with him (the vast majority of the 2,000+ international delegates), but for others gradually seemed like a raving madman. He attacked the audience as being pushers of this mind-rotting technology..not a great debating tactic, but he gives the impression of a man who cares about nothing other than his ego which was bloated by the use of the video projection screens, sadly.

He then was robustly challenged by Donald Clark who did a great job and was happy enough to show some passion and contempt for the scaremongering. The next two speakers were less effective. Bruce 'the Brute' (see Private Eye) Anderson, a veritable caricature of a fleet street hack, his tie slung askew muttered along the lines of trying to support the motion but being 'reasonable' (the old good cop/bad cop pairing), then some guy 'from Silicon Valley,' Jerry Michalski gave a fairly anodyne response to that...his analogy of the development of the 'automobile' with the net currently being at Model T wasn't a good one for a European audience, as a bicycling Dutchman commented!

Anyway, what needs to be said to those unfamiliar with Dr. Sigman is that cherry-picking (ie selective use of some reports and wilfully ignoring of other contradictory findings) seems to be his speciality, as pointed out by Ben Goldacre who he seemed to have a pop at during the session. If you want more on this aspect and some examples then visit this link.


Prof Stephen Heppell said...

excellent scholarship and I bookmarked what will be for sure a useful set of references if this debate raises its head again, as it does every five years or so.

I'd only take you up on "1997 – way before social networks!" since I was certainly engaged in a few rather good social networking projects (Learning in the New Millennium, Schools OnLine, etc etc) from 1993 when the web code got properly released. Our research of course confirmed learning gains even then.

Donald Clark said...

Yip, certainly has a long pedigree - I should have said 'mainsteam social networking' as in MySpace 2003, Facebook 2003, Twitter 2006 (they seem to have been around forever).

Kim Thomas said...

Nice one, Donald!

shackletonjones said...

I'm glad you tackled the loon, and sorry I missed it.

It's probably a bit of a hollow victory, though; he's clearly a self-publicist on a populist crusade and these kinds of people are hardly vulnerable to mere facts. It puts me in mind of House: 'If you could argue with religious people, there wouldn't be religious people.'

I think it's a bit of a shame that in the rush to batter this nincompoop, something quite important is glossed over - namely, that it is likely that there are quite dramatic changes in brain development occurring on a massive scale, as a result of the sudden introduction of pervasive technologies which change the nature of communication.

There's some respectable research around this (which I can dig out when I'm back with the books), but a) frankly it would be foolish to think otherwise - we know for certain that cortex (whilst remaining flexible to some extent) is highly susceptible to the early environment, and b) we shouldn't expect to see a lot of conclusive longitudinal research on something that has only really taken off in the last few years.

So whilst I agree that Sigman commits the classic naturalistic fallacy in introducing value judgements, rather than sticking to the science - i.e. one man's 'damage' may be another man's 'development' - I do think we should take a keen interest in how the environment is shaping our offspring. If only because they, in turn, will shape our environment.

I understand that an extremely tenuous link was being drawn between Facebook and isolation, and that this was the specific point you were addressing, Donald, but it does seem likely that there will be wider-ranging effects on areas such as attention-span, distractability, memory, mood and self-control and I would be interested in what you think of this more general question since both you and I have children who spend a lot of time immersed in technology.

My own vague speculations are expressed in this piece entitled 'Digital Obesity':

Donald Clark said...

I agree that there is a need for serious debate and a research agenda in this area. What I object to are the Sue Palmers and Aric Sigmans, exploiting the fears of parents on an unfounded basis.

The key term here is 'longitudinal studies'.

My own view is that most of the fears are, wn will be proven to be, unfounded, and that most cognitive effects will be cognitive 'gains' and not cognitive 'defecits'. We have good evidence, for example, that computer games significantly improve cognitive skills such as reaction times and spatial skills.

The same worries were expressed about television, and there's a broad set of largely inconclusive evidence on all sorts of issues here - yet not one government has found enough evidence to do anything other than set time thresholds for bad language, sex and violence.

On the 'obesity' issues: poor attention span, nervous distractability, poor memory, depression, aggressiveness, reduced self-control, I'm not so worried.

For example, when educators talk about reduced attention span, they often mean reduced attention for sitting quietly in classrooms. To attribute this to a cognitive defecit strikes me as odd. They may, for example, be behaving as smart learners, realising that a more engaging approach will result in better retention. My kids can sit for a several hgours without blinking when angeged in a computer game or while socialising online.

Bob Harrison said...

Great stuff Donald, Sorry I did not get to Berlin for ringside seat but had the delight of witnessing City beat Chelsea :)

I wonder if,at some point,we will be able to provide evidence that social networking can improve health and wellbeing? Anecdotally we know it is likely?

shackletonjones said...

Causal relations are a funny thing. For many years the tobacco industry hid behind the fact that whilst it was easy to prove a correlation between smoking and cancer, no causal relationship had been discovered – it might just be that, say, a predisposition to cancer also makes you want to take up smoking. For a long time I said similar things about violent video games – after all, if you’re a violent kid what kinds of games are you going to play?

But Anderson, Gentile & Bucley’s 2007 publication ‘ Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents’ changed that for me. They look at three new studies which demonstrate conclusively that ‘exposure to violent video games constitute a significant risk factor for later aggressive and violent behaviour.’ Or, to put it in layman’s terms: if I separated from my partner, took drugs regularly, beat my kids, forced them to watch graphic violence and live in poverty – the combined effect of these risk factors would still not be as great as allowing them to play violent video games. Short of enrolling them in a violent gang, there is nothing more efficacious.

I know this is off-topic; but I want to draw some inferences 1) violent video games were around for maybe 20 years before anything this damning was published – so we’re agreed on the need for more research, b) you say ‘The same worries were expressed about television, and there's a broad set of largely inconclusive evidence on all sorts of issues here’ – and I think it’s pretty clear this is now an outdated position: TV violence is indeed bad, and violent games are far worse (2.9% vs 8.8% as contributing factors).

I have to confess to being something of a hypocrite: I loved fallout 3, I’m belatedly working my way through Gears of War 2 and looking forward to Modern Warfare 2 for Xmas. I’ve noticed significant improvements in gristly realism. And I’m clearly a big fan and user of social networks, and blogged their benefits on several occasions. I notice that younger generations can beat me on games, but can’t write anything much more than a paragraph long (and even then it is largely observations). I liked your point about attention, but I think it needs closer scrutiny: I sit glued to games, gadgets and my miserable inbox for hours, but there is something qualitatively different about these kinds of attention - and your own blog post provides a good example: it’s a carefully and coherently argued, well-researched piece. The kind that took a while to research and put together – and the kind you rarely find these days. Are you ready to concede that this ability belongs with the dinosaurs?

I firmly believe that fast-switching is fostered in an environment where lots of information is coming at you from lots of directions – and I agree that classrooms are generally boring. So I fully accept that human beings will be better adapted (in the non-evolutionary sense) in years to come. I’m just intrigued by all the sorts of consequences that will follow, and the sorts of things that they will no longer be able to do.

Donald Clark said...

Some good points here on causation/correlation and the Anderson research. The Byron Report did a good job on this one, I think, as the looked at a:

"vast array of evidence…and commissioned three literature reviews:

1) Up to date research evidence on children’s brain development – Prof. Mark Johnson Birkbeck University

2) Comprehensive review on the vast body of child development research - Professor Usha Goswami Cambridge University

3) Current media effects literature in relation to video games and the internet – Prof. David Buckingham Institute of Education

Annexes F, G, and H and at

In short, they found different schools of thought and many who disagreed vehemently with both the methodology and findings of Anderson et al.

Ultimately, it's the longitudinal studies that matter here. I, personally, think that the social learning (Bandura onwards) school of though it way out here on media and behaviour.

Marie-Therese Le Roux said...

Thank you for the wide selection of scholarly evidence. From a more mundane standpoint, I simply argue that social media are tools, and can be put to constructive, neutral or destructive use. The tools themselves cannot be blamed for the users' intentions. Moreover, the enemy in question is perhaps not social media but rather excessive use. Even as a strong advocate of the educational benefits of social media, I still believe in moderation. Thank you for some great discussion!

Andy Tedd said...

bravo Donald - I had commented to Lars that the conference looked dull as and you were the only hope of some entertainment

Unknown said...

I think children have been bored in school long before the arrival of new technology alternatives. Shakespeare refers to the schoolboy going to school reluctantly. I dare day they would have preferred to be climbing trees rather than conjugating Latin verbs.

Donald Clark said...

This is an interesting part of the scientific debate as many of the ills blamed on technology or social networking, such as obesity, teenage pregnancy (yes I know), social isolation, fall in literacy, less reading etc, are all trends which were happening BEFORE computers came on the scene.

jmarkovic said...

Hi Donald,

A bit late to comment on this but still feel I need to throw in my 2 cents.

I attended the debate and was one of those who without any doubt voted in favour of your opinions. However, I think things are not quite as you show them in your post. E.g you in turn might be cherry picking the tweets you're citing. Let's be honest: you won the voting but it hasn't been a resounding victory, which actually surprised me quite a bit considering who was in the audience. That was a conference on e-learnig, which probably means most of the attendees regularly use social software and still I estimate close to 40% agreed with Sigman.

The reason might be you made some mistakes debating. I don't think you can refute Sigman's claims by just saying "you're wrong!" (as funny as that was) and not backing it up with anything more than an example of your sons. That's not science, either. You also ignored the question by that guy who did some evaluative work in Africa and claimed Internet had no positive influence on the kids there.

Anyway, I generally enjoyed and appreciated how you defended your stance, even not so much because of my views on social software specifically but because of the scientific standards I believe in and which Sigman violated. A peer-reviewed article can be based on selectively chosen evidence because it is supposed to cause a stir? Please!

Donald Clark said...

I couldn't comment on the guy who did the evaluative work in Africa as he presented no data nor a paper. I did, in fact follow up on this and found that his position exaggerated the June evaluation which had a balance of positives and negatives.

David Hollow (the guys boss I believe) of the UK-based ICT4D Collective at Royal Holloway, University of London, and his team evaluated the OLPC initiative in Ethiopia by observing classroom sessions and interviewing students and teachers. The study has been criticised for not taking into account the use of laptops outside of the classroom and after school.

Quote from David Holloway:
"While I did indeed criticise aspects of the model and implementation of this programme, I also drew attention to positive aspects. The research conducted was just one dimension of ongoing efforts to assess the educational effectiveness of the programme and I believe that the team at ECBP are doing a fantastic job at addressing the significant challenges surrounding teacher training, content provision and classroom integration. A balanced perspective on both the successes and challenges of the initiative will be available shortly on the website of the ICT4D Collective."

So when he claimed that the projects had no positive impact he was wrong.

I have seen work done in Rawanda that is overwhelmingly positive.

When I said 'you're wrong' to Sigman, I was responding to Sigman's claim that children spend on average 7.5 hours a day online. It takes just a few minutes on Goggle to refute this plainly ridiculous figure.

I wasn't really suprised at the 60/40 split, as the majority of people at that conference are leacturers/teachers, with an in-built defence mechanism, when it comes to defending traditional educational practice. It is, after all, what they do for a living.