Social media use is more common than ever, with over 2 billion of us signed up, but do we know what it's doing to our brains? We’re exploring how this exploding trend is influencing our opinions and our wellbeing, and also how it could be used as a tool to diagnose mental illness. Plus, news of a breakthrough in Huntington's Disease research and a celebration of 50 years since the spooky radio signals that changed astronomy forever.
In this episode
01:02 - Huntington's Disease trial success
Huntington's Disease trial success
with Ed Wild, University College London
A DNA-based drug that can penetrate brain cells might be about to revolutionise the treatment of the degenerative condition Huntington’s Disease. The success of a small initial trial of the agent, currently called IONIS-HTTRx, has prompted the pharmaceutical company Roche to license the drug and take it forward. Chris Smith spoke with UCL researcher Ed Wild, one of the team testing the new agent…
Ed - For the first time we have the results of a clinical trial that is aimed at tackling the cause of Huntington's disease, which is a protein called “huntingtin.” We have injected a drug into the spinal fluid of patients with early Huntington's disease and shown that we have successfully been able to reduce the amount of the toxic protein that is present in the nervous system.
Chris - People with Huntington's; what systems to they display; how does it affect them?
Ed - It’s a relentlessly progressive disease. In early adult life, typically in a patient's thirties or fourties. They will develop subtle personality changes: things like being more irritable, having problems concentrating at work, having a shorter fuse, anxiety, depression, and then a bit of fidgetiness. The symptoms will then slowly progress over ten or twenty years until the person loses the ability to walk, to control their limbs. Loses the ability to speak and swallow and, unfortunately, eventually all patients with Huntington’s disease become completely disabled and it is always fatal.
Chris - Who gets it?
Ed - It is a genetic disease. Many people with Huntington’s disease know that the illness runs in their family. Each person with the disease has a 50% chance of giving it to each of their children. Somewhere between 5 and 10% of patients we see in our clinic though didn’t know that Huntington’s disease existed in their family until they’re diagnosed after clinical investigations and a genetic test.
Chris - What is the abnormal gene doing to these people to make them have this disease?
Ed - Everyone has two copies of the gene behind Huntington’s disease, but in someone who’s not going to get it both genes are normal length. At the beginning of the gene there’s a sequence of genetic letters CAG, CAG, CAG, and so on. If there are to many CAGs at the beginning of that gene, that is what results in a positive genetic test for Huntington’s disease, and that gene is a recipe for a protein called “huntingtin”.
If you have too many CAGs in your gene, the protein ends up a little bit too long, and with too many building blocks called “glutamine” the beginning of it. Essentially, that protein is poisonous to your neurons in the brain and it builds up, it interferes with the functioning of neurons and, at some point, it becomes too much and the neurons start to die.
Chris - The new therapy that you’ve trialled, how does that work?
Ed - The drug is called an “antisense oligonucleotide” or ASO, and it is a synthetic DNA molecule. What happens is that this synthetic DNA molecule is injected into the spinal fluid and from there it enters neurons. It sticks to the ‘message’ molecule that is intermediate between the gene and the protein. So the gene is a recipe for the protein but, before it makes the protein, the cell essentially makes a working copy of the gene and that molecule, that so-called message molecule is the one that is directly used to build the protein. So the drug molecule sticks to the message molecule and the cell has built-in machinery for detecting when something has stuck to its message molecule, and when that happens, the cell’s immediate reaction is to get rid of it. It essentially deletes the message molecule and if you do that then much less of the protein gets made.
Chris - Over what period of time was this given to the patients?
Ed - This was a pretty short trial, so four injections were given over a four month period. It was principally designed to ask the question of whether the injection of the drug was safe, was it well tolerated, and did any short term safety issues arise? The good news on that front is that in the 46 people in the trial, there were no significant safety issues identified from either the injection procedure or from the drug.
Chris - Did it make a difference to the levels of the huntingtin, the abnormal protein that would be there in these people?
Ed - It did, and that is why people in the Huntington’s field and beyond are so excited about this preliminary announcement. What we found was that there were significant decreases in the level of the mutant Huntingtin protein. This is not a cure for Huntington’s disease. At the moment we have no idea what this drug will do clinically. Will it slow the progression of Huntington’s disease or not? We are going to need a much longer trail to test whether giving this drug in the long term slows the progression of Huntington’s disease.
06:19 - Dino-feasting tick found in ancient amber
Dino-feasting tick found in ancient amber
with Ricardo Perez-De-La Fuente, Oxford Museum of Natural History
Now dinosaurs have ruled the planet for hundreds of millions of years, but they weren’t immune to being preyed upon themselves by parasites, and now scientists have discovered an ancient tick clinging to a 99 million year-old dinosaur feather trapped inside a lump of fossilised tree resin. Georgia Mills spoke with discoverer Ricardo Perez-De-La Fuente from the Oxford Museum of Natural History…
Ricardo - We present the first direct evidence of a parasite/host relationship between ticks and feathered dinosaurs. We have a tick that is grasping a feathered dinosaur in Burmese amber which is 99 million years old. We also have described additional ticks that belong to a new group of ticks - an extinct group of ticks that went extinct, probably at the end of the Cretaceous, so those are the two main findings.
Georgia - I’m quite familiar with ticks that exist now: I have to take them off my dog when she’s run through shrubbery. Is this tick similar to what we’d see today; what is it?
Ricardo - Yes. Actually, that tick is an immature tick. It’s about 1mm in length and it belongs to hard ticks - so a modern group. Whenever we think about the classic ticks, hard ticks are the ones that come to our mind. They have this shield-like structure at their backs that mostly protect them from when the host is trying to scratch them off for instance. So the tick that is in the feather in the amber piece that we discovered and we described in this new paper, it’s very similar to modern forms. Actually, the tick can be classified as an already described species. This is the first time that a tick is found in direct association with remains of its host.
Georgia - Right. This is pretty strong evidence then that dinosaurs had to deal with these pests as well?
Ricardo - Yeah, absolutely. That’s actually the dream of paleontologists. 99% of the time we are always working with possibilities, and we use the morphology of the fossils to try to infer ecologies and behaviours of past organisms. But cases in which we can actually get access direct evidence by direct association, those cases are very very rare.
Georgia - What must have happened for you to get this brilliant snapshot of 99 million years ago?
Ricardo - Amber is fossilised resin, it’s sap from the trees that, with the passing of time, has hardened. But we can imagine the feather with a tick grasping to it got detached from its feathered host and got in contact with some resin flow. We don’t know if that happened on the trees, or above the ground, or at the forest floor at floor level. Because sometimes we can have resin becoming secreted high in the level of the branches of the trees so sometimes that resin falls on the ground, but that’s overall the scenario that we can picture.
Georgia - How did you get hold of this amber?
Ricardo - We had private collectors donating part of their collections to museums and through them we got to study them. I mention this because, actually, nowadays Burmese amber can be purchased online. It’s a good income source for the local sellers in Myanmar, so there are private collectors that have specialised in amber, purchasing this material, and some of them, luckily, are interested in their collections to be studied by scientists. So this had a happy ending, it’s one of those strange cases in which private collectors broke the barrier between themselves and scientists and, because of that, we got a very fruitful work.
Georgia - I’ve got to ask just because Jurassic Park is my favourite film: they find a mosquito in the amber and they bring dinosaurs back to life. Is anything you’ve got here enabled you to get any closer to the dream?
Ricard - Very well put! I would say that not in this case, unfortunately. Jurassic Park was based on a serious scientific study that had claimed to have extracted DNA from amber inclusions, but subsequent experiments were not able to replicate it. It must have been a contamination from modern DNA. Using modern techniques there is actually no way we can extract decently preserved DNA from amber inclusions. It seems that DNA is a very fragile molecule and degrades easily. So the message here is: not at this particular moment of time, but we need to keep dreaming about Jurassic Park - someday, perhaps.
12:16 - Is science getting harder to understand?
Is science getting harder to understand?
with William Thompson, Karolinska Institute
Are the science papers that scientists are publishing getting harder to understand? Chris Smith heard how one scientist, William Thompson, thinks they are…
William - We were four PhD students frustrated about reading different scientific texts. We had journal clubs together and there was particularly one person that we were reading repeatedly that we thought was hard to read. We joked originally, has this person always been hard to read or is this something which is developing as the ideas developed?
We realised we could quantify this, and as soon as we realised we could quantify it for one person, we realised we could apply the same tools and get a much larger corpus, which was over 700,000 scientific abstracts. We made a list of 123 highly cited journals from 12 different fields, then we tried to quantify the readability. So, for example, the number of words per sentence and the number of syllables per words and tried to make an estimate about how hard it is to read.
Chris - What time frame did this span?
William - The earliest article was 1881, but most of the scientific literature started to appear around 1960 that we could get our hands on and then up to 2015.
Chris - When you run the text from those abstracts through the analysers and ask it to score the language that’s being used, what trend emerges?
William - We found a large downward trend in readability, and that means that texts are getting harder to read now compared to previously. We were surprised at how strong the trend was.
Chris - You looked at a whole raft of different journals which means that you could consider different scientific disciplines, so are any disciplines particularly prone to this or is it that all scientists across the board now have a tendency to over complexification and use of long multisyllabic words where simple terms might actually be feasible instead?
William - I think the important take-home message was that all the fields we looked at were getting worse. There were some differences, for example, clinical medicine was the least worst, and molecular biology was worst and one of the metrics. But I don’t think the emphasis should be placed on that, I think the emphasis should be placed on all fields were getting worse.
Chris - How do you account for this?
William - With the data we had we tried to explore two possible reasons: one of them was: did the number of authors impact the readability because the number of authors has been growing over time. You often see four or five authors on a paper today, where in 1960 it was one or two. The number of authors does have an impact on the readability so if there’s more authors it’s generally less readable but that doesn’t explain the trend.
An additional hypothesis we had was that scientists may be drawing from an increasingly common vocabulary. We tried to see what were the 3,000 most common words that scientists use, then we split this list of 3,000 words up into several categories to isolate a category we called “general scientific jargon.” And these words were on the increase, scientists were drawing from this vocabulary of general scientific jargon.
Chris - Do you think it really matters though that some papers are a bit impenetrable because some people could argue well, I’m a molecular biologist and I don’t really care that much if an astrophysicist can’t read my molecular biology paper?
William - I’m very sympathetic to that view but, at the same time, this entire endeavour started when PhD students within the field of neuroscience were having a hard time reading some neuroscience, so it can hamper people within the subject itself. Then, in a much wider context, science is not just for scientists. People should be able to use scientific knowledge to make society better. If the wider parts of society cannot access papers such as scientific journalists or policy makers, if they’re having a hard time interpreting or understanding scientific text, that’s going to mean that science can’t be used as effectively in a wider context.
16:54 - Mythconception: Did Dolly the sheep have arthritis?
Mythconception: Did Dolly the sheep have arthritis?
Lewis Thomson has been investigating this tall tail...
Lewis - On the 5th of July 1996, Dolly the sheep was born. She had been created by scientists at the University of Edinburgh. They took the DNA out of a cell from an adult sheep, and inserted it into another sheep’s egg cell which had had the DNA taken out. They then implanted that egg cell into another surrogate mother sheep.
Dolly was the first mammal to have been produced by this cloning process, and quickly became a celebrity. However, at the relatively young age of 6, she had already developed several health problems, including early-onset arthritis and lung cancer. Sadly, she had to be put down.
Concerns were raised about the possible link between cloning and early ageing – and many people became convinced that Dolly’s health problems were caused by her being a clone. If this turned out to be true, it would shatter the hope that cloning could pave the way to producing spare body parts with which we could repair ourselves later...
But now a new study suggests that this is a myth! A paper published last month by Nottingham University’s Sandra Corr and her colleagues has revisited Dolly’s health problems...
Even though Dolly has been dead for almost 15 years, and all of the original reports of her arthritis have long since been lost, her skeleton is preserved in the National Museum of Scotland, in Edinburgh.
So Corr and her team carried out a detailed radiological - X-ray - investigation of the remains of Dolly, as well as her daughter Bonnie (who was born naturally), and of two other cloned sheep, Megan and Morag.
They found that, although there was some arthritis in her elbows and knees, most of Dolly’s joints were fine. In fact, there wasn’t much of a difference between the skeletons of any of the cloned sheep or their offspring, and that of a normal sheep’s skeleton.
Most sheep develop some arthritis in their elbows or knees – as these are the joints which bear the most weight. Pregnancy also increases the risk of arthritis, and Dolly was the mother of six lambs. This suggests that Dolly’s arthritis wasn’t really anything to do with being a clone – but just a natural result of being a sheep, and in particular, a female sheep.
As for the lung cancer, this is also, unfortunately, quite common in sheep. The lung cancer that Dolly had was a specific kind, and is actually caused by a virus called JSRV. Being a virus, it is infectious, and so if one sheep has it, others can get it – and all of those that have it are susceptible to getting lung cancer. Other sheep in Dolly’s flock were diagnosed with the virus, and some of them died because of lung cancer. It’s possible that as Dolly’s flock had to be kept indoors for security reasons, there was an increased risk of the virus spreading, and so, an increased risk of getting lung cancer.
So, it seems that Dolly’s health problems were nothing to do with her being a clone. The original reports of her arthritis were exaggerated, and her lung cancer was caused by a virus – not by early ageing. Having said this, the jury is still out on whether or not there is a link between cloning and early ageing. The DNA of a clone will be older than the DNA of a naturally conceived animal, and this may cause problems in later life. So maybe you should hold off on trying to clone your pet – at least until scientists have looked into this a bit more...
20:26 - Jocelyn Bell Burnell: 50 years since pulsar discovery
Jocelyn Bell Burnell: 50 years since pulsar discovery
with Dame Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell
In 1967, a student at Cambridge University came across a series of strange pulsing signals that subsequently went on to transform the world of astronomy. What Jocelyn Bell Burnell had discovered were “pulsars” - small, dense rapidly spinning stars that fire off a lighthouse-like beam of radio waves as they go round. Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, as she is now, returned to her old college, that’s Murray Edwards in Cambridge recently to mark 50 years since her discovery by delivering a celebratory lecture. Izzie Clarke went along to listen...
Jocelyn - At that point in time, Cambridge University had one computer. It occupied a room of about this size and it had less memory than your laptop, and that was for the whole university. Our data came out on paper chart, rolls and rolls and rolls of it, because we didn’t have access to the computer. Perhaps just as well… because if we had had access to a computer with limited memory, we would not have programmed it to look for anything unexpected, like pulsars.
Izzie - Have you had many interviews in a room named after yourself?
Jocelyn - No I’ve never, I think, even been in a room named after myself.
Izzie - We’re here celebrating 50 years of your discovery of pulsars, and that was when you were here as a graduate student at the University of Cambridge. What were you initially working on?
Jocelyn - This was in the field of radio astronomy, which was a fairly new young field at that stage and what I was meant to be working on and, in fact, what my thesis was actually on was finding more quasars. Quasi stellar radio sources which are extremely distant and quite puzzling radio emitting objects.
Izzie - It was whilst studying these radio emitting quasars that Jocelyn came across a rather peculiar signal…
Jocelyn - The first thing that came to my attention was that there was a bit of signal that didn’t make sense. I’d got to the stage of recognising the quasars that I was meant to be seeing. I could see - I nicknamed it ‘a bit of scruff’ - there was quarter inch of this funny signal that I couldn’t make sense of in 500 yards, 600 yards, something like that. So it wasn’t very common, it wasn’t very extensive but, because I was being extremely thorough and keen to understand exactly what this new telescope was delivering, I was trying to check out what this was. It finally turned out that this little bit of scruff was a string of pulses, a string of blips about one and a third seconds apart.
...This is what came in on the recorder: blip, blip, missing. Blip, blip, blip, blip blip…
Well, first of all, nothing like that had been seen before, and nobody imagined that anything like that could exist. So it was really really surprising, we had to take quite a bit of time to convince ourselves that it really was a signal from outer space - from stars, and not some weird kind of interference that we hadn’t dreamt of.
For example, I remember wondering if it could be radar signals bouncing off the moon and into our radio telescope. Or could there be a satellite in a funny orbit which mimicked the motion of the stars? It took us several weeks of really hard work; then I found a second one, and a few weeks after that I found a third and a fourth. So that really does begin to feel like a new kind of star, and then the question is: what on earth… well not on earth… what in the universe could give that kind of signal? What kind of star is this? It’s crazy!
Izzie - This baffling finding was the first detection of a pulsar, also known as a neutron star due to its neutron rich core. But how does a star give off this pulsing signal? Imagine a lighthouse with its two bright rotating beams that can be seen for miles away. Well, pulsars aren’t too dissimilar. This astronomical object spins round with two beams of radiation shooting out from each pole…
Jocelyn - We still don’t fully understand how radio beams are formed but the magnetic field, we’re pretty certain, has something to do with it. And, as this thing spins, if the beam sweeps across the Earth you see a pulse…
It turns out that these objects are small. They’re only about 10 miles across but they also are very very dense, very compact so they’ve got a lot of mass in them. They’ve got a thousand million, million, million, million tons of stuff in a ball 10 miles across. If you take a thimble and squeeze the 7 billion people on Earth into that thimble, then it weighs the same as if it were filled with stuff from one of these stars.
We now believe that it’s the end product, a life after death if you like, of a very big star which has done a catastrophic explosion which has basically killed off the star, dispersed 95% of the stuff out into space. But the 5% in the centre, the core, has been squashed in the explosion and become one of these stars.
Izzie - A nobel prize was awarded but it went to your supervisor. How did you feel at the time?
Jocelyn - I think at the time people expected me to be very angry, but I wasn’t. One of my colleagues, his wife heard the news, phoned him up at work and he came steaming through to my office to tell me and I think he expected to see me explode. I didn’t, because I’m also a political animal. There is no nobel prize in astronomy; there’s not one in mathematics either. Something to do with Professor Nobel and women and other professors, so certain areas he wasn’t going to leave his money to.
This was the first time the physics prize committee had deemed astronomy to have enough physics in it to award the physics prize so it was a huge, huge precedent. I was quite proud it was my stars that had convinced them. I knew that it was going to open the door for other astronomers and a couple of other astronomers have walked through that door subsequently. So yeah, it was very important.
28:27 - Can social media influence us?
Can social media influence us?
with Sander van der Linden, Cambridge University
Can social media affect the way we think? Are social media bubbles - and we’ll explain what those are in a minute - influencing elections for example, and can facebook even influence our mood? Cambridge University’s Sander van der Linden looks into this very thing, and he explained to Chris Smith just how pervasive these sites are...
Sander - I would say that the scale is massive. Around the world globally, about 2 billion people are using social media. And perhaps what’s even more interesting is that more and more people, significant majorities, are getting their news from social media websites. This is particularly true for young adults, but also at increasing rates for older people. So I think perhaps the real testament to your question is this: if you now ask someone do you have a Facebook account and they say no, they’re probably going to be the odd one out.
Chris - In what way might this influence politics, the way news is spread and so on? How can this change what we’ve been doing for centuries?
Sander - I think the new media environment is definitely changing the way that people will engage with information. I think the big challenge is trying to understand how? So, for example, if you’re asking is our echo chambers and filter bubbles and things like that influencing political behaviour like voting? I think it’s quite a complicated question.
Chris - What is a filter bubble?
Sander - So an echo chamber is: imagine sticking your head in a chamber and everybody is absolutely loving what you’re saying and reverberating you’re right. This is the right opinion to have, this is the idea of an echo chamber. Perhaps it’s created by filter bubbles which are based on Facebook’s, and other social media, algorithms that tailor content based on your prior click behaviour. When you like something, when you read something, that goes into the algorithm that then selectively targets you with what they call “ideological consistent content.” So political content that you’ve looked at before, and that sort of deprives you from other stories and stories that are going on the other side, and the other spectrum and so that’s what they call a filter bubble.
Chris - It feeds me what I want to hear and sort of cushions and buffers me away from people, views, perspectives that I might not be aligned with, so I then end up being perhaps fooled into the idea that everyone agrees with me?
Sander - That’s exactly correct.
Chris - In what way might that then influence an election?
Sander - People say that it did. The trick is how do you quantify that in academic terms and I think there’s two problems. One: some studies suggest that perhaps people weren’t exposed to as much fake news as we have previously imagined and so the link to actually mobilising people to vote is difficult to make in causal terms. But then other studies show that, in fact, and this is the real power of social media it’s often not the message itself, but the sharing of friends and friends, and friends of your friends that influence you and actually propel you to have a certain opinion in order to vote one way or the other. I do think that it has an influence, but the problem is trying to quantify exactly how much it’s influencing public debate and voting behaviour. But I do think there’s reason to be concerned about it.
Chris - And this whole question about it might influence your mood because you’re being fed certain thing but not others, in what way could that work?
Sander - There are some clever experiments and, in fact, some of these were done by Facebook employees, where they actually manipulate the newsfeed. What they would do, for example, is decrease the amount of positive content in your newsfeed or decrease the amount of negative content. By ‘positive’ or’ negative’ I mean emotional content. And what they find is when they decrease the amount of positive content you feel less positive, and when they increase the amount of negative content you feel more negative. In a way, they can actually regulate how you feel and respond to content and I think that’s actually quite important and something to think about.
Chris - That sounds quite dangerous?
Sander - It is, and all the studies show that it works the same with targeting people with messages. People don’t know this but you are being targeted online with messages based on your click behaviour, and the aim of those messages is to get you to do something, click or something. Experiments have shown that just simply targeting messages based on the users behaviour works in a very concrete way in that they can actually mobilise people to click on something. As you said, that can be quite dangerous depending on, of course, the purpose for which it is used, for example, influencing elections.
Chris - But could it be used for good as well? Presumably there’s some good in this, if we can do bad things with it we can equally well do good things?
Sander - That’s absolutely right. Now we have the ability to mobilise millions of interconnected people for things that we might value in society. For example, the ALS ice bucket challenge was an example of that. That was an unprecedented viral campaign where million of people around the world donated to a particular cause. It's, in fact, a very low cost way to connect people, to organise people independently, for example, to supply access to information or internet in parts of the world where they’re deprived of certain resources. I think people have the capacity to do amazing things online that previously wasn’t possible.
Chris - Do we know whether or not something stand a good chance of doing very well on social media or is there like a formula that you could tell us where you say: well look, if you do your tweets in this way or you craft your campaign like this, you’ll get a much greater chance of succeeding?
Sander - Yeah. Some of the research I looked at, well what makes a campaign or social cause go viral? We looked at many, many different campaigns and one of the things we distilled was that there is almost like a formula, and we used the acronym “SMART.” It stands for social influence, moral imperative, affective reactions and translational impacts.
Very briefly, social influence means campaigns are inherently social so that they have an element that allows people to connect together and join the bandwagon.
Moral imperative means that the campaign is about something that people care about; maybe social injustice.
Affective reactions: there’s emotions. Things that make people feel good or bad that tend to go viral more often.
And then the last aspect is really about sustaining that viral impact because when you look at most things that go viral, what comes up eventually must come down.
Chris - I’m not after a cheeky free consult or anything here Sander, but we do have our annual fundraiser coming up. So can you give us some tips, me and Georgia, so that when we run the next Naked Scientist fundraiser we have got an absolute dynamite campaign?
Sander - I'll do my best. The first aspect would be social influence. In a way you want to illustrate how many good samaritans are already contributing so that people can see how much is being contributed to the fundraiser. So that’s good, that provides social proof. Then you want to show that it’s a good cause in a way to make that contribution.
Chris - Hopefully, that’s obvious. I mean it’s the Naked Scientists.
Sander - Effective reaction, so you want to make people feel good about their contribution. They are contributing to a good cause and feel good about it that, hopefully, then - and this is where you hope to cross the T - that they’ll come back next year and donate again.
35:22 - Does social media harm happiness?
Does social media harm happiness?
with Phil Powell, University of Sheffield
As use of social media rises, people are asking questions about the link between heavy use and wellbeing. And, in particular, what about younger people amongst whom it’s extremely popular? Georgia Mills heard about what we know from Philip Powell at the University of Sheffield.
Philip - The evidence on this is mixed. The first thing to say is that social media can have positive effects on well-being by decreasing loneliness, providing sources of support for people and even providing a venue to affirm their sense of self-worth by reviewing their profile.
But what we have as well as that is a series of large representative national survey studies that have been carried out across different countries that show a significant negative relationship between the time spent on social networking and people's well-being. We know that these effects are largely concentrated at the top end of use so that people who spend an excessive time on social media, which is normally defined as around greater than two hours per day. Some recent research by scholars at Oxford University has actually shown that at low to moderate amount of social media use can be beneficial and they’ve termed this the “Goldilocks effect.”
Georgia - Okay. Some use is good but a lot of use is associated with negative things, but how do we know that who are sort of less well aren’t just more likely to spend hours and hours on social media because of this?
Philip - It’s definitely a concern and the majority of research is associational that just shows a correlational relationship between social media use and lower well-being. There have been some studies that have looked at how the two things may interact over time, so it’s been shown that changes in social media use are associated with changes in well-being. But that still doesn’t mean that the change in, for example, Facebook usage causes the change in well-being, it’s possible that another variable may influence the two things independently.
In our own research we’ve tried to overcome this by using sophisticated statistical techniques. They are used when we don’t have experimental data but we are able to use additional data that has a one way affect on our outcomes. We can, essentially, estimate the association between social media use and this additional data, which was internet connection speeds from Ofcom. And by estimating the association between those two things and the strength of the association with well-being we’re able to derive as close to causal relationships as possible.
Georgia - And this is still indicating that a lot of use is negative. So what kind of effects is it having on well-being and do we have any ideas why?
Philip - These things include reduced life satisfaction, increased anxiety and depression, and reduced happiness. These are things that can be distinguished but are generally related to one another. The method in which increased social media use may result in lower well-being is likely to be multifactorial. It may involve, for example, instances of cyber bullying, negative comparisons with others, exposure to inappropriate content online. And also through its association with disruption to physical and healthy daily activities such as sleep and exercise and other positive activities for our well-being.
Georgia - You mentioned cyber bullying there. Facebook previously only allowed over 13 year olds to use their site, but recently they’ve launched Messenger Kids, which is a service aimed as just pre-teens. So do we know how social media affects young people in particular?
Philip - The first thing to point out is often children under the age of consent are frequently using social networking sites already. In our own data we found worse effects of social media use on well-being on those that were aged 13 and over, and not at those that were younger and there are a number of reasons of why this may be the case. We also know from separate data that cyber bullying increases over time in the early teen years. We also know that there are increased pressures on children and young people to fit in in the teen years.
Georgia - Social media is obviously a very broad term. There’s lots of different types of social media and there’s lots of different ways to use it, so do we know what kind of different effects different social media has?
Philip - There was a recent survey by the Royal Society for Public Health for 14-24 year olds and they had there participants rank the main social media platform, so that’s Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and YouTube. They had them rank them on a range of health related factors including depression, body image, experience of bullying.
What they found is that YouTube came out as the most positive and Instagram was the most negative, and they don’t actually elaborate on why that may be the case. But we could, for example, hypothesise that because Instagram is a platform that involves user-generated photos, and we know that idealised and filtered photos are particularly problematic for young people’s well-being.
The other thing to mention is it’s been a distinction throughout the literature between passive and active use. Passive use describes things like looking at people’s profile pages and liking, whereas active use involves actively connecting and chatting with people, and it tends to be the passive use that is particularly problematic for well-being.
Georgia - Do we know anything about how social media affects our ability to learn; I suppose specifically with children?
Philip - No. I think there’s a positive research in this area, and this is something that we’d like to look into in the future.
Georgia - It’ll be interesting to see what that says; it certainly makes procrastinating easier. What do we do about this; do we need to do anything?
Philip - There are three main approaches we could take and they’re not all mutually exclusive. The first is that we try to reduce or restrict the amount of time that children and young people, and maybe even adults, spend on social media. The Royal Society for Public Health has called, for example, pop up warnings on heavy usage on social media sites and this is supported by a majority of young people that they surveyed.
A second approach is that we focus on this idea of usage. It’s not the amount of time per se but it’s what people are doing online. We need to generate platforms for social media that encourage active use and discourage passive browsing of information and social comparison.
Finally, there’s the idea that’s supported by places like the Education Policy Institute that we actually have a duty to educate our young people in the safe use of social media and equip them with digital skills so they can cope with problematic behaviours online.
42:01 - Is social media really addictive?
Is social media really addictive?
with Daria Kuss, Nottingham Trent University
More than 2 billion of us are using social media - or at least were - in 2016, it’s 20% more now, and Facebook has the highest number of active consumers. The average user spends nearly an hour on Facebook’s suite of applications every day. But some invest considerably more time than this and may even forgo other pleasures in life to feed their habit. They may even complain that they feel physically unwell if they become separated from social media for any period of time. Might they, therefore, be considered to be addicted? Chris Smith heard from Daria Kuss from Nottingham Trent University...
Daria - We have some research that has been conducted around the world which would suggest that social media use in some instances for some excessive users can, indeed, lead to the development of addiction related symptoms. These kinds of symptoms are relatively similar to symptoms that are experienced by substance abusers. These symptoms are related to tolerance or needing to spend increased amounts of time using social media. Withdrawal symptoms, symptoms that occur when the person is trying to cut down on their social media use, so depressive symptoms, loneliness, irritability moodiness, things like that.
I think the main criterion that really distinguishes an addiction from potentially excessive or problematic use is the loss of control over one’s behaviours. What we’ve also seen in clinical context is that once individuals lose the control over the behaviour they might know that the behaviour is excessive, they want to stop it, but they actually can’t. They realise they may need to speak to somebody who may be able to help them.
Chris - Do you know who is most susceptible to this?
Daria - I think what the current research evidence base shows is that there are a number of individuals who may be more susceptible to developing problems as a consequence of their social media use. These users are very frequently females, so we find that females are so much likely to engage with social networking sites and social media potentially more excessively than males. Younger users appear to be at risk for developing addiction related problems as well, and that may have to do with the fact that they may feel the pressure to keep updating their online status. For example, they may feel the pressure to have to upload pictures on their social media platforms etc. These, I think, are the main criteria but you will also find that a number of personality traits have been linked to potentially excessive use.
We know, for example, that narcissists are much more likely to use social media in order to represent themselves in a better light. We also know that people who are particularly extroverted use social media in order to increase their already big real life social networks. Whereas introverts also appear to use social media significantly more but for other reasons in order to enhance their social networks which may, in real life or the offline world, be smaller than online.
Chris - Why do you think that people do this? Why are they making this substitution for a real life conversation with a real life friend in real time? Why do they sort of eschew their friends, their dinner conversations to pick up their phone?
Daria - I think there are a number of reasons for why people use social media and maybe in favour of engaging socially in the offline world. One of those reasons is the rewards that social media use offers in terms of the brain mechanisms involved in using social media. So every time somebody likes a post on Facebook, for example, you might get that little reward in your brain that’s telling you oh, you know, that makes me feel happy; that makes me feel content. That’s the reason why I’m going to repeat this because I’ve got that little bit of happiness; that boost of happiness through engaging with social media.
In addition to this what we will find is that you have got significantly more control over your interactions online than you have over your interactions offline. You have got the time to compile a response to somebody’s social media post that may be in line with what it is that you want to say; that maybe in line with the way you want to present yourself. Whereas in a real life conversation there is a lack of control so you really don’t necessarily have the control over how you are going to react, what you’re going to say. So I think there are number of reasons for why people feel a bit more comfortable engaging using social media rather than engaging in offline social conversations.
Chris - So what should we do about it?
Daria - When I’m being asked that question, I often say actually use social media. The reason for why I’m saying that is if you are giving yourself the time, let’s say an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening to use social media you are able to get it out of your system, and that may also allow you to free up all the rest of the time to do other things. To see people face to face, to engage with your working life, your academic life, etc, without necessarily thinking oh, I need to check my phone every five minutes.
In addition to this, what I would recommend is to leave the phone to the side when you are in an actual social offline setting, when you are having dinner with your friends and family, for example. Because research also suggests just simply having the phone on the table without actually using it is impacting how we’re behaving.
Chris - France is currently considering banning mobile phone use across the school day. It sounds like quite a good idea then based on what you’re saying?
Daria - I wouldn’t say that I’m particularly in favour of banning phones from schools altogether because we are all using technology. Technology has become an integral element of our lives and, I think, completely forbidding it isn’t the right way to go. I think what we want to do as educators, as parents, as teachers is to ensure that we advocate a use that is a conscious use. That is aware of the potential pitfalls of technology but which is, at the same time, aware of the great benefits that technology use can offer us.
48:19 - Feeling blue: Instagram posts can indicate depression
Feeling blue: Instagram posts can indicate depression
with Chris Danforth, University of Vermont
Social media might have some interesting applications for monitering mental health. University of Vermont statistician Chris Danforth is developing computer algorithms that he says can spot people with depression just by looking at the content and compositions of photographs they’re posting onto the social media platform Instagram. In tests he’s achieving up to a 70% pick-up rate. Georgia Mills spoke to Chris about his work.
Chris - There have been a number of studies in the last few years looking at aspects of our behaviour that we reveal through social media. In particular, studies that we’ve been involved in have been looking at trying to assess someone’s mental health from aspects of images they post to Instagram and messages they write on Twitter.
Georgia - How have you looked into this?
Chris - What we did was recruit individuals who had been diagnosed with depression by a psychiatrist and were active on social media at the time. We asked them for access to their social media feeds, so we compared picture’s they took with pictures taken by a control group who had not been diagnosed with depression.
What we found was that individuals who had been diagnosed with depression, their pictures tend to be bluer, and darker, and greyer. They tended to have less faces in them and these results are consistent with what psychiatrists know about how depression affects people. It literally causes them to see the world with less colour in it, and they spend less time in large groups of people and social interactions.
While those findings weren’t particularly surprising, what’s really exciting about that particular study from our perspective is that when we restricted our computer model to only have access to pictures posted by people prior to the date that they were formally diagnosed, it still picked up on these differences. That’s an indication that we could be able to get individuals who are suffering from depression in front of a doctor sooner.
Georgia - Oh wow! So you could quantify these pointers like having blacker and bluer pictures, and these things appeared before people had actually got a clinical diagnosis?
Chris - That’s right. And the results, they’re consistent with what people are finding looking at other sources of social media as well. We looked in a separate study at depression and PTSD, and identified predictors of those health states from words that people were using on Twitter and their behaviour: frequency of their posts, how likely they were to include links in their posts. And there were indicators, as well, that there were differences prior to the date that they were formally diagnosed.
So I think that the results of our study are promising, but they’re really just a proof of concept. There’s a small group of a few hundred people in each of these studies and it’s not clear that this would translate to the average person using Instagram or Twitter. But the goal is to try and figure out how to leverage all of the information that we give our mobile phone about us: our tone of voice, the words we use, the people we communicate with. This sort of data it’s incredibly private so if we can protect it but yet, at the same time, give algorithms access to information that’s predictive about our health state, we could be connecting with our doctor sooner. For example, the doctors could have access to a lot more information than they would get from a typical yearly checkup interview.
Georgia - Do you see this being used by the social media companies themselves?
Chris - Certainly companies know a lot about you, even if you’re not using it, just from what your friends are doing on the site. I do expect that there are going to be situations where social media companies are selling advertising spots for people who are suffering from mental health problems potentially without even intending to, or realising that they’re doing so. That’s something that I think is really important right now is that we start having a conversation with each other about how to protect this sort of data.
This particular study was done by a few people with limited resources but certainly, if we could do it, then a company like Instagram or Facebook or Twitter, they could use this data to try and make money. We’d like for them to use it to try and help us be happier and healthier.
Georgia - I suppose that is a worry, people will be worried about their privacy; that people could see that they’re depressed before maybe they know themselves?
Chris - I think that we reveal a lot more about ourselves online with our digital footprint than we’re aware of. Part of doing research studies like this in communicating the results of these studies to people is to help educate the population about what it is that they need to be aware of when they’re on the internet.
Georgia - Is there a way the social media companies could use this information for good?
Chris - Certainly Facebook and Instagram are active in trying to provide mental health resources to people who, for example, search for the word depression or use words that have been seen to be predictive of self-harm. They have teams working on trying to get individuals who are suffering from the problems access to people sooner. And that is a combination of artificial intelligence and actual people who are then called in to virtually try and address whatever’s going on and maybe, potentially, dispatch police officers to attempt to rescue someone. So companies are working on that sort of thing.
Stepping back to the picture of public health, there are a number of other studies, some of which we’ve done, showing that things that you might like to quantify about how well a city or a society are functioning, those things can be inferred from the words that are used if you look at particular geographic areas. We’ve shown, for example, that population scale, health rankings, like the percentage of people who are obese, or who suffer from diabetes, those things can be inferred from just the words that people use on Twitter.
Well-being surveys that are done by Gallup can be inferred without asking any questions simply by seeing how often people use happy and sad words in different states, for example, in the US. So there are going to be applications for this sort of public health instrument building that people are going to develop.
55:33 - Do fish yawn?
Do fish yawn?
Heather Wark spoke to Ian Barber, an animal biologist at Nottingham Trent University to talk us through this marine musing…
Ian - Well, it all depends on what we mean by yawn. Many fish do open their mouths very wide for a period of a few seconds at a time which resembles a human yawn. Stickleback fish do this while raising their spines and flexing their body, which really does look like they’re having a yawn and a stretch. Cool word - pandiculation. But we can’t assume that just because fish sometimes open their mouths wide that they’re yawning.
Heather - To understand if fish truly yawn, we need to understand what the function of yawning is…
Ian - Unfortunately, it turns out that this is one of the great unresolved mysteries of our time. With the most obvious explanation that yawning increases oxygen supply in the blood and helps make us feel less tired being largely discredited by experimental studies.
The most convincing theory currently is that yawning serves to cool down the mammalian brain, which fatigues as it warms up. However, such a brain cooling mechanism is unlikely to benefit fish since, as ectotherms - cold blooded animals, their body temperature is controlled by that of their environment anyway. So if yawning turns out to be defined as a mechanism for cooling the brain then, no, fish do not, and do not need to yawn.
Heather - So what are fish doing when they make those yawn-like mouth movements?
Ian - For some fish, we know that mouth gaping is used in ritualised sexual, territorial or aggressive displays. Some fish can produce sounds through a variety of different mechanisms, and opening the mouth may allow those sounds to be directed at mates or rivals.
Fish, of course, breathe through their gills so if they need to increase the flow of oxygen to their tissues, they may also be able to do this by increasing the flow of water through their mouth and up over their gills. Opening their mouth wide whilst swimming fast can have this effect, and this is how fish like Mackerel and Tuna satisfy the high oxygen demand of their tissues. And finally, some coral reef fish also gape as a signal to stimulate cleaner fish to begin cleaning them.
Heather - So we don’t really know whether fish yawn or not. But, coincidentally…
Ian - There is a fish called a Yawning (Poromitra oscitans). It’s a member of the family called the ridgehead fish - deep water fish of the tropical indo pacific zone, and it’s a bit of an ugly brute.
Heather - Thanks Ian. New week we’ll be cooking up an answer to this culinary conundrum from Martin:
Why, when cooking fresh pasta, or gnocci, does it rise to the surface when it’s ready? As far as I can see the dough is solid so I can’t see how the density decreases. Thanks a lot for great show.