No, Virginia, Facebook Doesn't Cause Cancer.
A friend forwarded this link to me about a doc claiming that Facebook causes cancer and other fatal maladies and asked for my doctorly opinion. See here for the article, and below for my response.
A few reactions:
1. People did not stop face-to-face interaction with the creation of Facebook. Duh. That started with the rise of the TV as primary evening activity in the second half of the 20th century, along with the living situation transition away from closely knit family communities to isolated nuclear families living in suburbia. If anything, I believe Facebook has brought people back together into communities, and is used as much for event planning and bridge to connecting with people in person as it is for online interaction.
2. The studies he cites talk about the lack of hormonal response to emailing, which is entirely different from the interactions one has on facebook. Emailing is unidirectional communication, static and out of real time, and private between sender and recipients. Facebook has IM chat, which, for example, I've been using a ton to connect with my awesome cousins Justin and Andrew who are 10 and 12 yrs old in Houston - they're still at an age where it's sort of awkward to have any meaningful sporadic conversations on the phone or email, and I only see them 1-2 times a year - but now through Facebook chat we're getting to know each other and share ideas, and I feel so much more involved in their lives, which is so great. Furthermore, when one posts status updates or to someone's wall, all of your friends see it, so there's this communal communication that is strange but fantastic and weblike. And finally, I bet if they did studies on the hormones and physiologic changes during an intense flirtatious IM chat between two people, it would be less significant than those with face-to-face contact but way more than just emailing or sitting at home by yourself. Well, depending on what you were doing sitting at home by yourself.
3. There is evidence that people who have poor social connectivity are more likely to get cancer, heart disease, recover worse from illness, etc. And there's corresponding evidence showing that people who have amazing social support and communities live longer with cancer, live longer in general, are healthier, etc. But I would argue that Facebook is a form of social support that's just as important as face-to-face contact given our current culture of moving away from our origin communities -- e.g., having facebook as a way to effortlessly and instantly connect with all of my family and best friends from back East was a crucial factor in helping me get through this past year of medical internship, which was otherwise pretty rough on the social front.
So, in summary: yes of course physical social interaction is incredibly important, in part because we are a cuddling species and regular touch is absolutely essential to our health. But, I disagree that Facebook has anything to do with the decrease in face-to-face social interaction of Americans, and I think rectangle time (as in computer, TV, video games) in general is the culprit - I think Facebook is actually a way to counteract the otherwise detrimental effects of too much socially isolated electronic sport.