Social networking just barely existed when I was an undergraduate ten years ago. I first registered for Facebook as a graduate student at NYU when I learned that my sister Leigh's friend had posted pictures from Leigh's wedding on the site. I wanted to see them and I still had a .edu email address so I created an account. For the first six months I had about 5 friends, all college-age younger siblings of my real life friends. Then something changed. Maybe the right people had signed up and made it desirable and acceptable for skeptics and cynics to join or maybe it was when the site allowed non-students to sign up, but Facebook hit a tipping point. The initial excitement (I found my kindergarten crush! That guy who sat behind me in Spanish class! My friends from study abroad!) soon turned to public outcry (My mother joined Facebook! My boss, my teacher, my students!) The ongoing battle began - to secure privacy policies and allow access to a select few (hundred) people so that your potential employers did not come across your spring break photos from Cancun, 2003. The culture of Friendster, MySpace, Facebook, of Twitter has changed the way we live and the way we relate. It's not surprising then, that it has also affected our health.
This week an article in The New York Times addressed the use of social networks to tackle public health problems.
...how do we extract information from existing social networks to improve public health?
One method is to identify social connectors, people who spend time with more friends than average — and are thus exposed to more germs and are more likely to be among the first to contract contagious diseases like the flu. If health officials could find and track those social butterflies, they could tap into an early-detection system for epidemics and figure out whom to vaccinate first in order to slow the spread of disease.
This suggests a way to use social networks for control of infectious disease. But what about other health conditions? Last year The New York Times magazine featured an article, "Are Your Friends Making You Fat?" The answer, they found, was not only are your friends making you fat, but so are your friends' friends. The Framingham Study, conducted by the National Heart Institute, began in 1948 and over the years ithas become an important longitudinal study of heart disease by assessing biometrics, risk factors and other confounding factors. It was noted that healthy participants influenced one another in a way that benefited weight and overall health. It turns out that obesity, smoking, happiness can all be contagious. And no system lends itself to social contagion quite like the internet, where information can go viral. So does that mean it's time to go through your 537 Facebook friends and unfriend the fat ones? Perhaps if they update their status every day with messages like: Blankety McSo-and-So had the most decadent and rich slow-churn homemade ice cream sundae and can still taste the hot fudge on my lips. Go to your freezer and indulge too!" or "Lazy Johnsondecided that staying home and a seven hour Glee marathon was a far better idea than getting any sort of physical activity. Singing along on the couch is exercise too, right?" If reading these posts will influence your own behavior, then maybe unfriending (or at least hiding them in your feed) is a good solution. Or try the diet that encourages participants to broadcast every calorie and morsel they ingest. It worked for these people. (For those not interested in disclosing their food habits publicly there is a calorie-counting iPhone app to track food intake.)
I'm thinking about this today as two old friends from New York arrive for a weekend visit. Last time they visited they were afraid that I would force them to eat kale. As we spent time together cooking and eating they were realized that I enjoyed food that tastes good. This time around they know the drill. One is excited to go hiking again, the other is eager to walk around the lake. "I think I lost weight when I came to you last time," one offered. The other recalls tasting quinoa for the first time, and loving it. As for me, I'm looking forward to taking time to talk and laugh with old friends...cuz laughter is contagious too.