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Social Networks Rule Your Life

September 29, 2010

Brit Trogen

There's an invisible power controlling every aspect of your health, lifestyle, and well-being. It's not God, the Force, or even fate. It's Facebook.


Social networks influence health issues like obesity, smoking, and how much you drink. But the weird thing is, it's not just your close network of friends. That would be too obvious. It's the extended network; the people you could hardly imagine having any strong influence on your life. The friends of friends. And friends of friends of friends. And so on.


Science in Seconds Brit Trogen


A study from the Annals of Internal Medicine found that a person with a friend of a friend who drinks heavily is 36 percent more likely to drink heavily themselves, a number that jumps to 50 percent when the connection is a heavily drinking friend. The adage is true: birds of a feather do stick together. And the correlation is found for weight, sleep behaviour, drug use, and numerous other health issues, often spreading as far as four degrees of separation.

Networks can also tell us important information about the transmission of diseases; everything from sexually transmitted infections and depression to influenza. They can even save money on keeping track of epidemics. Using a process called "syndromic surveillance" to track Twitter feeds for flu-related messages, computer scientists at Southeaster Louisiana University managed to forecast future influenza rates with 95% correlation to CDC statistics.

They can tell the future of your love life, as found by a study led by Megan Moreno from the University of Wisconsin. Facebook profiles that made references to sexual behaviour were highly correlated with self-reported intention to initiate real-world relationships in a survey of college freshmen. No word on the correlation between pokes on Facebook and irl, however.

But while drug use and depression can spread like epidemics, so can happiness and health, given the right circumstances. The lesson? If you're surrounded by negative, unhealthy people with traits you'd rather not possess: un-friend. You are who you know.

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