6 Potential Mental Health Benefits of Deleting Social Media


Thinking of going on a social media cleanse? Here’s what you need to know.
social-media-cleanse_feature

Social media cleanse”—a fancy term for deleting social media—has become something of a buzz-phrase in our increasingly plugged-in society. In December 2015, Ed Sheeran took an indefinite hiatus from Instagram after growing tired of “seeing the world through a screen.” (He’s since returned to the site.) In June 2016, Demi Lovato, who has a historically tumultuous relationship with the Twitterverse, stepped away from social media for 24 hours so she wouldn’t “have to see what some of y’all say.” Chrissy TeigenTaylor SwiftJustin Bieber, and a handful of other celebs have all followed suit—seeking respite from the realm of mirror selfies, nonstop notifications, and internet trolls, if only for a mere 24 hours.

In a world where we #DoItForTheGram and take more food porn photos than we know what to do with, it’s no surprise many of us have glamorized the idea of taking a break from the digital and getting back to our pre-technology roots. (I know I have.) But every time I step away from Twitter, or remove Instagram from my phone, or temporarily deactivate my Facebook account, the same questions arise: Is deleting social actually doing anything for my mental health? Are all those Snapchat stories, Instagram double-taps, and Facebook updates impacting my life that much? Or am I just making these periodical forays into the land of no social media for naught?

I combed the recesses of my brain for similar questions and posed them to a couple experts. Their consensus: Social media is associated with some bad stuff, but it’s associated with a bunch of good stuff, too. If you’re feeling fine about your technology habits, there’s no need to guilt yourself into a social media cleanse. But if your affinity for Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Snapchat is causing you a ton of stress or is getting in the way of your life, then taking a break might be helpful. Here, six potential mental health benefits of a temporary social media cleanse.

1. It might help you sleep better.

A Bank of America-commissioned survey of 1,000 U.S. adults found that 71 percent of Americans sleep with or next to their smartphones. (Let’s be real: I’m one of that 71 percent, and you probably are, too.)

But this can take a toll on your sleeping habits. According to the National Sleep Foundation, that blue light your phone screen emits can interfere with your body’s production of melatonin—the hormone responsible for helping you get to sleep. Looking into that blue-lit social media void right before you settle in for some shut-eye can disrupt your ability to fall asleep. (You’re not doing yourself any favors when you try to assuage your insomnia by checking Instagram or scrolling through your Facebook feed, either.) Needless to say, separating yourself from social media might lead you to spend less time on your phone—which might help you get to sleep faster.

2. It can force you to reprioritize in-person interactions.

Andreas Kaplan, a Europe Business School professor specializing in social media, tells SELF that excessive Facebook use is linked to things like social isolation, loneliness, and depression. And Jacqueline Nesi, a clinical psychology Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Carolina, backs that up. “Social media can be a great tool for keeping in touch with friends and family,” she tells SELF. “But excessively using social media—at the expense of in-person interactions with friends or family—can negatively impact relationships and well-being.”

3. It *might* reduce your anxiety.

According to research, excessive social media and technology use is associated with a lot of bad stuff—like high anxiety, low quality of life, and depression. But experts warn these results are only correlational—meaning relationships exist between usage and this bad stuff, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that technology and social media cause the bad the stuff.

Still, Jacob Barkley, Ph.D. and psychology professor at Kent State University, tells SELF taking a break from technology could help some people mitigate their anxiety. For one thing, it could lessen the obligations some people associate with constant communication. Responding to new texts, emails, and Facebook messages nonstop can become stressful, and getting away from that—even for just a day—can feel great. (Barkley suggests setting up an automatic email reply to give people a heads up that you’re on hiatus, so you don’t have to worry about missing any urgent messages.)

4. It can help curb your FOMO.

Another huge plus of getting off social media? Avoiding the oh-so daunting FOMO, or fear of missing out. “When you’re linked up to this huge network through this one device, [you can] feel that where you are isn’t where it’s at,” Andrew Lepp, Ph.D. and professor researching media use and behavior at Kent State University, tells SELF. “It’s almost natural to think that among all these other places there must be one that’s more interesting than where you are right now.” This, he says, drives the anxiety associated with cell phone use—and it also leads people to compulsively check their devices. “I always find that a bit ironic because they could be having a really nice time if they’d just put the device down,” Barkley says.

But obviously, FOMO goes both ways. For some people, actively avoiding social media can create a FOMO all its own—for example, worrying that you’ll miss a friend’s big life announcement on Instagram or forget to wish someone a happy birthday because you missed a Facebook reminder.

5. It might inspire you to get a little more exercise.

Getting out from behind a screen might inspire you to get on your feet a little more. And exercise is associated with a bunch of great things, including decreased anxiety.

6. It can help you remember all that other stuff you like to do.

The logic is simple: If you stop dedicating time to one thing, you free up for time for other things. Lepp says he and his family go tech-free every Sunday—spending their time hiking or enjoying a nice meal together, instead. You might prefer to spend your time painting, going to the park, hanging out with friends, volunteering, working out, cooking, or doing a whole range of other things. The social media-free world is your metaphorical oyster; do with it what you will.

A final reminder: There’s no need to give up technology altogether if you don’t want to.

This list of potential benefits is just that—a list of potential benefits. It’s not a point-by-point thesis urging you to sacrifice your social media accounts to the technology-free gods. If you feel good about your level of social media use, keep doing your thing. If you don’t, then you might consider changing things up—but even then, you don’t have to drop everything. You could take a break from social media once a week, or delete some apps from your phone, or take a trip somewhere isolated.

You have plenty of options. And the most important thing is that you do what makes the most sense to you.

 The physics that tells us what the Universe is made of


Everything around us is made of atoms, but it turns out that the building blocks of the Universe are far stranger than that

Science writer and astrophysicist Adam Becker explains what the Universe is made of to BBC Earth’s Michael Marshall and Melissa Hogenboom, with help from the animators at Pomona Pictures.

Join over six million BBC Earth fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

Source:http://www.bbc.com

The Future May Owe Itself to Blockchain Technology. Here’s Why.


IN BRIEF

Sending satellites into space is going to continue to get cheaper since SpaceX proved it could reliably launch refurbished rockets. This is going to open up space exploration to more entities allowing for the continued democratization of space. Other technological advances could make a global space centered sharing economy a real possibility.

CROWDFUNDING THE FUTURE

The rise of the internet and the ubiquity of mobile computing devices have changed everything from travel and shopping to politics – think Uber, Amazon, and Twitter.

CubeSats: The Latest Evolution in Space Exploration

But for the next revolution in commerce, governance and social interaction we need to look up – about 100 miles up, into the low Earth orbit. There, falling prices for communication and earth monitoring satellites, along with blockchain-enabled security, will make everything from broadband communication to crop monitoring available not just to technology elites, but to the most remote farm, village or machine.

This sharing economy in space could give even those not employed by large corporations or governments access to real-time, trustworthy data about everything from weather patterns and economic outlooks to cross-border migrations.

By democratizing access to space-based resources, we can create a more humane and just world. But realizing these benefits requires overcoming complex technical, legal, political and regulatory challenges. It also means genuinely caring about, and addressing, the suspicions of those who, in an increasingly nationalistic and fearful world, will bridle at anonymous, crowdfunded satellites looking over their shoulders.

THE DEMOCRATIZATION OF SPACE

Multiple technical advances are creating the infrastructure for the sharing economy in space.

First, and most obvious, is a wave of start-ups driving dramatic and ongoing reductions in launch costs with innovations such as reusable boosters. The second is the development of nano sats that are dramatically smaller, lighter and less expensive to build and launch than those typically used by governments or industry. These satellites use common standards and off-the-shelf parts, transforming satellite manufacturing from crafting one-off designs to the mass assembly of standard products.

The use of software-defined components, which can be updated with new capabilities and new techniques for speedier development of custom sensors, further slashes the cost and time required to provide new space-based services. The increasing intelligence of satellites and the communication bandwidth between them will allow them to operate as autonomous swarms, allocating monitoring or signal relay work to the satellite that can do it most efficiently. Finally, all these advances mean more and more space-based sensing and connectivity services with continual increases in image resolution and the area satellites can cover at a lower cost.

From satellite constellations to Mother Earth’s 24×7 digital twin

NOW, ADD BLOCKCHAIN

However, community or civic organizations must know the data they receive is reliable and that their ownership stake in a satellite (or the service it provides) is secure and they will get proper payment. The low-cost, distributed trust provided by the blockchain distributed ledger provides these assurances through a series of decentral and encrypted technologies provided by the Next Generation Internet.

Blockchain-enabled “smart contracts” can also allow satellites and systems that need their services to autonomously negotiate and complete transactions based on predetermined criteria such as the price a customer is willing to pay for a certain image and how quickly they need it. Users, satellite owners and even the satellites themselves could dynamically create new services to pay for their launching, insurance, and other costs.

Ideally, a “digital twin” of earth – the sum total of all real-time data about everything from endangered biospheres to animal migrations and air pollution – could be analyzed by artificial intelligence algorithms to identify threats to the integrity of the earth and trigger countermeasures.

A SHARING ECONOMY IN SPACE

A sharing economy in space means the distributed ownership of space assets and the data and communication services they produce. In this economy, satellites and their “products” would not only be owned by for-profit entities and governments, but by non-profit community groups, NGOs and individuals. They could even be “self-owned” by the assets.

This new economic model could provide much more accessible, faster and lower cost remote sensor data, as well as low-cost universal broadband communications for previously underserved areas and remote machines.

These capabilities could be used for everything from increasing business efficiency to reducing pollution and crime and empowering local and non-profit organizations to protect the earth or their local communities. They also pave the way for new granular, decentralized markets for the rental, lending, and sharing of satellites.

It’s not too hard to imagine the benefits, which range from improved tracking of transit, weather and traffic conditions to more accurate economic forecasting – think tracking the number of cars at shopping centers, as indicators of consumer confidence or the location of oil tankers and rail cars to monitor economic output. Humanitarian organizations could better target relief efforts and even remote villages could fund their own broadband communications or track illegal logging.

NOT SO FAST

Like any major change, this sharing economy in space faces major legal, regulatory and technical hurdles. They range from determining who owns the information and analytics to providing opt outs for those who don’t want satellite data about their property recorded. It will also require mechanisms to track and control satellites to prevent their being used for criminal or terrorist purposes, as well as finding ways to safely destroy failed satellites so they don’t cause damage to other satellites or space vehicles.

Then there is the question of how these decentralized, cryptographically secure eyes in the sky will look to those who feel left behind by globalization and economic, social and technological trends. It is all too easy to imagine how a sharing economy in space could be seen as just another top-down, utopian vision that helps urban elites at the expense of poorer, rural or economically-depressed areas.

Fighting this perception requires work to make sure it does not become a reality. The onus is on business and government leaders to proactively and aggressively ensure that the sharing economy in space genuinely helps everyone, regardless of where they live, their social class, political orientation or level of formal education. Such benefits for those who feel left behind range from: broadband access that gives remote users entry to the global economy; faster access to climate, market and pricing trends that can help farmers negotiate with middlemen; and even locally-controlled monitoring of national borders to defuse fears of mass illegal migration.

Now is the time to begin detailed discussions about issues such as:

  • How to regulate this infrastructure to prevent its misuse without stifling innovation.
  • When and how to eliminate barriers to nano sats, such as high license fees and other funding/capital requirements, as well as requirements that operators provide indemnity against damages beyond that provided by a launch partner.
  • What types of funding (crowdfunding, private investment, government subsidies) should be encouraged to stimulate development of the sharing economy in space.
  • Who should own the data, and the resulting analysis, and how to balance private ownership of the data one group has paid for against its value to the public.
  • Whether and how this data, services, and transactions should be taxed and which tax authority should receive the revenue.

BUILDING THE FUTURE NOW

The future of space may not evolve as we’ve predicted here. As with the internet, humans have found unexpected ways to use new technology and the dangerous side effects – such as the polarization of society through self-reinforcing interactions on social media – often take tech visionaries by surprise.

But the basic technologies, from falling costs for space-based communications and sensor data to blockchain-enabled smart contracts, are maturing rapidly. Together, they will create an internet-like, standard, scalable and low-cost platform on which innovators can build radically new businesses and social models. Realizing the potential benefits – and spreading them beyond the traditional capitalist stakeholders and urban elites to wider society – will require close attention to technical, legal, security, ownership, privacy and equity issues.

Tackling these issues proactively will help prevent the inevitable unexpected consequences that could threaten the game-changing benefits of a truly shared economy in space.

Could editing be coming to Tweets?


Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has asked the platform’s users which new or improved features they’d like to see in 2017.

You think you’ve crafted the perfect Tweet. You hit the big blue button to set it live — only to realise you’ve made an “unpresidented” typo. Editing is something many of us would like to see on microblogging social network Twitter, and as it turns out, CEO Jack Dorsey would too. On Thursday, he asked Twitter users to come at him with ideas for new features and improvements for the platform.

Several users requested the ability to edit Tweets, and Dorsey responded that such a feature is “def needed.” However, implementation could be tricky. If the ability to edit the Tweet is limited to a short window after publishing, that is one thing, but if you could edit the Tweet any time after publishing, Dorsey says a changelog would be required.

This has already been implemented in Facebook, where you can click the word “Edited” to see the changes made to an edited post or comment. On reddit, an asterisk appears next to the timestamp if to indicate a post or comment has been edited after a three-minute window. This helps minimise abuse of the edit feature, whereby a poster could edit a post to change the meaning.

Watching Porn Frequently Could Make You A More Religious Person: Study


Pornography sites get more visitors than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined. Despite this, X-rated videos remain a taboo, something people rarely talk about or admit to viewing because of a moral stigma. In an ironic turn of events, a study published in the Journal of Sex Research suggests that those who watch porn more than once a week tend to become more religious.

Use of pornography has skyrocketed in recent decades, prompting an equally large uptick in research focusing on the industry’s social factors. Previously, high religiosity had been associated with low pornography use — almost all religious groups disapproveof the material. The current study suggested that those who watch pornography only occasionally become less religious over time, while those who watch it more often become more religious.

The research followed the same people over a period of six years, measuring both their pornography use and religiousness along the way. The sample included a nationally representative group of 1,314 adults who answered questions about their pornography use and their religious habits. Even after controlling for outside factors like age and gender, use of pornography was associated with low religiousness at the end of the study until the rate of consumption became more frequent than once a week. At this point, religiousness increased.

“Findings suggest that viewing pornography may lead to declines in some dimensions of religiosity but at more extreme levels may actually stimulate, or at least be conducive to, greater religiosity along other dimensions,” wrote study author Samuel Perry of the University of Oklahoma.

He further explained that exposure to pornography may inspire guilty feelings, especially if a person is violating the rules of their religion. This could at first lead them to distance themselves from religious activities. As pornography viewing increases, people may find ways to rationalize their behavior, or even turn to religion to try and overcome the behavior that is making them feel guilty.

According to Dr. Jeff Louge, a counselor and assistant professor at Sagu Christian University, 47 percent of Christians say pornography is a major problem in the home. Many other faiths, including Islam, maintain that pornography is a no-no for religious followers. If this research is correct, however, that heavy pornography use may be driving people closer to their faith rather than farther away.

Twitter misrepresents the real world, computer scientists warn


Social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest, are populated by a very narrow section of society, scientists warn.

Social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook should not be used to gauge human behaviour or trends because they are too biased, scientists have warned.

Increasingly, social researchers and media organisations use sites to glean information about public views and interests.

Twitter trends do not represent what the public actually cares about, scientsts warn

But computer scientists at McGill University in Montreal and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh warn that the data omits the opinion of large portions of the population who are either under-represented, or who choose not to engage in social media.

They claim the sites ‘misrepresent the real world.’

One of the major problems with sites like Twitter, Pinterest or Facebook is ‘population bias’ where platforms are populated by a very narrow section of society.

Instagram has a particular appeal to younger adults, urban dwellers, and non-whites.

In contrast, the picture-posting site Pinterest is dominated by females aged between 25 and 34. LinkedIn is especially popular among graduates and internet users in higher income households.

Although Facebook is popular across a diverse mix of demographic groups scientists warn that postings can be skewed because there is no ‘dislike’ button. There are also more women using Facebook than men, 76 per cent of female internet users use the site compared with 66 per cent of males.

“A common assumption underlying many large-scale social media-based studies of human behaviour is that a large-enough sample of users will drown our noise introduced by peculiarities of the platform’s population,” said lead author Derek Ruths, an assistant professor in McGill’s School of Computer Science.

“These sampling biases are rarely corrected for, if even acknowledged.”

The researchers also claim that the way in which sites direct people to links also leads to interest bias. The design of a platforms can dictate how users behave and, therefore, limit what behaviour can be measured.

And a large number of spammers and bots, which masquerade as normal users on social media, get mistakenly incorporated into measurements and predictions of human behaviour.

In recent years, studies have claimed the ability to predict everything from summer blockbusters to fluctuations in the stock market through social media. Some researchers say it is possible to map the spread of disease.

But the computer scientists claim the flaws in big data sets for research could have ‘huge implications.’ Thousands of research papers each year are based on skewed information taken from social media, they claim.

“Many of these papers are used to inform and justify decisions and investments among the public and in industry and government,” says assistant Professor Ruths.

Co-author Juergen Pfeffer of Carnegie Mellon, added: “People want to say something about what’s happening in the world and social media is a quick way to tap into that. You get the behaviour of millions of people — for free.

“Not everything that can be labelled as ‘Big Data’ is automatically great.”

Twitter changes itself from a social network into a news app.


The company appears to be looking to give itself more visibility, after disappointing results and growing concern about its direction.

twiternyse.jpg

Twitter has stopped calling itself a social network, and instead will think of itself as a news app.

Its official app has been moved out of its traditional and perhaps expected category – social networks – and instead will sit alongside more traditional news outlets.

The company has simply made the move on the App Store, and it will likely help it get more visibility and therefore downloads. But it comes at a time of increasing concern about Twitter’s future, and could be the first part of a major change in strategy for the site.

The company hasn’t made any public statement about why it made the change.

But among other things, it means that Twitter will no longer sit next to – and below – other more popular social media apps like Facebook and its various apps.

Instead, it will sit mostly with news organisations, most of which have their own apps, and will easily compete with many of those.

It might also signal a move in strategy for Twitter. The site has mostly been judged against Facebook and other networks on the basis of traditional measures like how many active users it has per month and how much money it can generate through ads, but will now be able to say that it rejects that comparison.

After the move, Twitter might be able to shift the focus onto its role in news gathering and breaking. The company has been increasingly concerned to stress how central it can be in news events, a fact that it built on with the recent release of its Moments too, which aggregates tweets about a certain topic and allows people to read them as a story on the app or site.

How Twitter Can Predict Heart Disease: Negative Tweets Associated With Stress, Higher Risk Of Disease


Twitter data compared to CDC data
The authors compared CDC data on heart disease risk with their own estimates based on Twitter language. 

Over the years, researchers have gathered several risk factors for heart disease ranging from not making a lot of money, to smoking, to stress. Now, a new study shows just how the use of Twitter can help dictate what populations are at risk of coronary heart disease: by identifying which users are tweeting about negative emotions like anger, stress, or fatigue.

The study, led by Johannes Eichstaedt at the University of Pennsylvania (in collaboration with others) and published in the journal Psychological Science, found that a county’s tweets about negative emotions were associated with a higher risk of heart disease for that community, while tweets that were more positive were associated with a lower risk. In a way, Twitter could become a tool for researchers who are trying to understand the psychological health of a community — something that was difficult to measure in the past.

Psychological Signs Of Heart Disease

The researchers studied public tweets from 2009-2010, scattered across 1,300 countries. Language considered negative — such as the word “hate” or swear words — were associated with heart disease mortality, while more positive messages involving words like “friends” or “wonderful” were linked to a lower risk of heart disease mortality. It wasn’t necessarily the people writing negative tweets who were dying of heart disease, however: rather, the tweets were indicative of a higher rate in certain communities.

“The relationship between language and mortality is particularly surprising,” H. Andrew Schwartz, an author of the study, said, “since the people tweeting angry words and topics are in general not the ones dying of heart disease. But that means if many of your neighbors are angry, you are more likely to die of heart disease.”

Along with risk factors like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity, other heart disease risk factors are psychological — like stress and depression, which can have an impact on a person’s physical health, desire to exercise, and eat well.

“Psychological states have long been thought to have an effect on coronary heart disease,” Margaret Kern, assistant professor at the University of Melbourne and an author of the study, said in the press release. “For example, hostility and depression have been linked with heart disease at the individual level through biological effects. But negative emotions can also trigger behavioral and social responses; you are also more likely to drink, eat poorly and be isolated from other people which can indirectly lead to heart disease.”

The trick, then, was to examine how negativity in people’s lives — as well as daily experiences of depression or drinking, for example — manifested itself on Twitter.

Twitter As A Tool For Epidemiology

The World Well-Being Project at UPenn is attempting to use Twitter and other social media outlets to better study psychology across large groups, mostly through the use of online language. One study completed by these researchers, published in 2013, examined Facebook status updates from 75,000 people. These status updates allowed the researchers to make surprisingly accurate estimates about each individual’s gender, age, and even personality. This is one of the reasons why Eichstaedt and his team wanted to harness Twitter’s vast sea of language and daily experiences as a way to better understand psychological undercurrents within communities.

“Getting this data through surveys is expensive and time consuming, but, more important, you’re limited by the questions included on the survey,” Eichstaedt, a grad student in the School of Arts & Science’s Department of Psychology at UPenn, said in the press release. “You’ll never get the psychological richness that comes with the infinite variables of what language people choose to use.”

Of course, Twitter’s 140 characters has its limitations; but as social media develops and expands, scientists may learn new ways to harness it for psychological and medical research.

Millions of people around the world are bracing themselves for their annual battle with flu.


Could new crowdsourcing software be the answer to their prayers?

There doesn’t seem to be any way out of it.

As the person next to you on the bus sneezes and you visualise tiny droplets of the virus spiralling towards you, you just know that, sooner or later, it will get you.

It seems unlikely that a smartphone application, as opposed to more tried-and-tested methods like vaccination or a face mask, could help you avoid going down with a dose of the flu this winter.

But that is what the creators of the website Sickweather, which launched this week in the US, claim.

Health professionals around the world already use online tools, such asGoogle Flu TrendsHealth Map or Global Public Health Intelligence Network to track the spread of infectious diseases.

Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have also launched The Flu Survey, which has recruited volunteers from 10 European countries to report symptoms and provide weekly updates of the spread of flu across the continent.

Sickweather claims to be different because it operates in real time using data from social networks, rather than news reports or internet search terms, and is designed for use by individuals, rather than public health officials. It has already been dubbed “Facebook for hypochondriacs”.

People who sign up are able to look at a map of the US or the UK and see areas where others have self-reported “symptoms” marked in orange. Soon after the website launched, much of the east coast of the US appeared to be a swathe of orange, although you can burrow down to street level to see who is sick in your neighbourhood.

Sickweather website

Co-founder Graham Dodge says it is early days and the site will become more useful as more people sign up to it – but he insists it is not just about allowing people to avoid catching illnesses.

“For people trying to avoid sickness, whether they have compromised immune systems, or simply have a timely engagement that they want to stay healthy for, Sickweather can be used to see where illness is being reported all the way down to the street level, so that the user can be prepared or avoid if they choose.

“Other users may simply want validation and confirmation that they aren’t alone with the symptoms they are experiencing.”

Another smartphone application, Influ, launched earlier this year in the US, asks users to rate the strength of their symptoms on a red dial, before plotting their position on the map so that other app users can avoid them. It has yet to really take off.

Sickweather’s chief operating officer and co-founder James Sajor says their site is different because it has developed “robust” algorithms to scan Twitter and Facebook for relevant data to add to that generated by members of its own community.

Flu facts

  • Influenza epidemics occur yearly during autumn and winter in temperate regions
  • Globally, flu causes three to five million cases of severe illness and about 250,000 to 500,000 deaths a year
  • Most flu deaths in industrialized countries occur among people aged over 65
  • The virus mainly spreads through droplets made when flu sufferers cough, sneeze or talk
  • You can also get flu by touching a surface with the virus on it and then touching your mouth, eyes or nose
  • Source: World Heath Organisation, US Centre for Disease Control

The company – which is hoping to attract advertising dollars from pharmaceutical companies – is currently talking to health officials in other countries with a view to going global.

On his Twitter feed, Mr Dodge encourages fans of Stephen Soderbergh’s latest film Contagion, one of a string of recent Hollywood pictures about deadly pandemics, to sign up to the site.

But Columbia University Professor Ian Lipkin, of the Mailman School of Public Health’s Centre for Infection and Immunity, a scientific adviser on Contagion, is not convinced that crowdsourcing is an effective way to combat the spread of contagious diseases.

“I don’t think this particular vehicle is going to be helpful,” he tells BBC News.

Tales of runny noses and fever on Twitter do not offer a reliable way to track disease, he argues, as there is no way of testing their accuracy.

It is not, in any case, that hard to protect yourself from infection, he adds, particularly in the United States, where an estimated 35% of adults get vaccinated for flu every year.

In the UK, only people aged over 65 or in at-risk categories are advised to get a flu jab, with take-up in the elderly category averaging between 72% and 75%.

Professor Lipkin is one of the leading advocates of a global early warning system for contagious disease to reduce the risk of the sort of pandemic seen in Contagion.

Matt Damon in ContagionContagion is the latest Hollywood film about a deadly global pandemic

“Right now we are in the early days. We are excited about it and we think it’s going to be very important,” he tells BBC News.

He believes the system should rely on a range of official sources, such as hospital admissions, prescriptions for anti-viral drug Tamiflu and sales of over-the-counter medicines, rather than anecdotal evidence culled from social media.

But has he been too quick to write off the potential of Twitter as a way of tracking the spread of viruses?

Researchers at the University of Iowa, studying the 2009 swine flu pandemic, compared fluctuations in the use of certain phrases on Twitter with flu cases reported through the US Centre for Disease Control, which has its own sophisticated flu surveillance system.

They were able to spot signs of flu in a geographical area one to two weeks faster than the CDC, which relies on reports of hospital admissions, mortality rates and other official data.

Researchers in Brazil have also used Twitter to track the spread of dengue fever, which they hope could speed up the response of the medical authorities to the disease.

The problem is that not everyone uses social media – it tends to be concentrated in major cities – and there is no guarantee people laid up in bed with a high fever will feel like broadcasting their symptoms to the world unless they are caught up in a media panic like the one around the H1N1 virus.

“What is the incentive for people to report? One does wonder why people do this,” says one of the authors of the Iowa University Report, computer science professor Alberto Maria Segre.

But, he adds, these obvious drawbacks could be outweighed by one major advantage: “What’s so cool about this is that we can do it in real time.”

And, he stresses, the volume of often useless data generated by social media users during outbreaks of contagious diseases should not be viewed as a problem.

“The information is there. The real trick is how do you check it, how do you make it reliable. How do you make sure somebody is not playing with you for their own benefit? But the potential is there.”

Microsoft designs stress-busting bra.


Microsoft working on a smart bra to measure mood

A sketch from the research paper
Two sensors were embedded in the bra

Microsoft researchers have designed a smart bra that can detect stress.

The prototype contains removable sensors that monitor heart and skin activity to provide an indication of mood levels.

The aim was to find out if wearable technology could help prevent stress-related over-eating.

Mood data was provided to the wearer via a smartphone app in order to highlight when “emotional eating” was likely to occur.

A team from Microsoft’s visualisation and interaction research group embedded an electrocardiogram and electro-dermal activities sensors as well as a gyroscope and accelerometer in the bra.

In their paper, the researchers say using a bra “was ideal because it allowed us to collect EKG [electrocardiogram] near the heart”.

Efforts to create a similar piece of underwear for men worked less well, largely because the sensors were located too far away from the heart.

The women testing the technology reported their emotions for about six hours a day over a period of four days.

“It was very tedious for participants to wear our prototyped sensing system, as the boards had to be recharged every three to four hours,” Microsoft senior research designer Asta Roseway said.

Electric shock

Wearable technology is increasingly being used to monitor a range of health conditions.

Last month saw the release of a Twitter-connected bra, that tweeted every time it was unhooked to encourage women to self-examine their breasts.

And last year a patent was awarded to a US firm that was working on a wearable device that analysed breast heat in order to detect cancer.

Meanwhile in response to a series of rapes in India, three engineering students developed a bra loaded with sensors and an electronic circuit that is activated when someone attempts to grope a woman wearing it.

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