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Technophobia, Facebook and syphilis

Rory Cellan-Jones | 12:46 UK time, Thursday, 25 March 2010

Every time a new technology comes along, it's treated by some as a cause for panic.

The telephone was going to be a threat to families because women would spend too much time talking to friends; television would destroy the health of our children because they would never go outside again; and, of course, video games would encourage violent behaviour.

But in recent years, it's social networking - and in particular Facebook - which has been the focus for concern.

In the last year, Facebook has been accused variously of raising your risk of cancer, encouraging sexual predators - and now of leading to a rise in the incidence of syphilis.

That story appeared first in a front page story in the Sun, headlined "Sex cases soaring due to Facebook romps", and was later picked up in the Daily Telegraph before spreading around the world.

Syphilis press release
It originated in a press release issued on Tuesday by the NHS in Middlesbrough [62Kb PDF], headlined "Warning as syphilis cases increase".

The release quotes Professor Peter Kelly, Executive Director of Public Health for NHS Tees:

"There has been a four-fold increase in the number of syphilis cases detected with more young women being affected."

No precise figures are given - it's not clear, for example, over what period this four-fold increase occurred.

But Professor Kelly goes on to say: "Social networking sites are making it easier for people to meet up for casual sex."

He makes no mention of Facebook - but as it is by far the most popular network in Britain, it wasn't perhaps unreasonable for the journalists to make the connection.

This morning, I contacted the professor to seek some clarification; he was in a meeting, but his NHS Tees colleague Edward Kunonga gave me a full run-down.

"There were a number of serious inaccuracies in the newspapers and blogs," he told me. "It was very misleading and exaggerated our position."

In particular, he says, this quote from the Sun is completely inaccurate:

"An NHS trust chief said Facebook and similar sites were to blame for a shocking rise in cases of potentially-lethal syphilis in the region."

Professor Kelly had not named Facebook, nor made the causal connection.

False-colour scanning electron micrograph of the anaerobic spirochaete bacteria Treponema pallidum, the causative agent of syphilis in manSo what are the facts? Apparently, in 2008 in the NHS Tees area (Middlesbrough, Stockton-on-Tees, Redcar and Cleveland) there were fewer than 10 cases of syphilis - so few that, under data-protection rules, the NHS can't give out the exact number.

But in 2009, 30 cases of heterosexual syphilis were notified to the NHS. So, yes: a four-fold increase, but a very small sample from which to drawn any very big conclusions.

So what is the connection with social networks?

Mr Kunonga says that in all these cases there is a thorough examination of the patient's sexual history and connections - and a significant number of people mentioned having casual sex with people encountered through social networks.

The Sun links this to a survey last month suggesting that the region is Britain's Facebook capital - "figures released last month showed that people in Sunderland, Durham and Teesside were 25% more likely to log on regularly."

But Mr Kunonga points out that Sunderland and Durham are not in the NHS Tees area - so the syphilis statistics do not apply to those apparently Facebook-mad cities.

In summary, Professor Kelly's colleague says:

"Our press release was simply trying to highlight the risks of casual sex. We did not make the claim that social networking sites are causing the rise in the incidence of syphilis."

I'm no medical scientist, but it seems pretty clear that what causes syphilis is casual sex, whether arranged via a social network, the telephone, e-mail, or something very old-tech like five pints of cider in the pub on a Friday night. But don't expect any headlines screaming "Cider Gives You Syphilis".


  • Comment number 1.

    "The telephone was going to be a threat to families because women would spend too much time talking to friends, television would destroy the health of our children because they would never go outside again, and of course video games would encourage violent behaviour"

    3 out of 3 is pretty conclusive. Time to curb social networking!!

  • Comment number 2.

    "Cider Gives You Syphilis" - maybe; but it'll cost you 10% more than previously.

  • Comment number 3.

    The Telegraph taking pot shots at Facebook... there is old news if ever I saw it.

    Looking at the facts here it seems that journalists need to go back to square one and learn what good reporting looks like again. They should focus particular attention to unbiased reporting.

    Personally if I could do one thing to improve journalism it would be to impose a quota on the number of times each paper could use the words 'Crisis' 'Chaos' 'Soars' 'Plummets' etc

  • Comment number 4.

    Newspapers around the world have been complaining about how technology (the internet in particular) is destroying their industry. They bang on that what makes them special and worth keeping is their insight, op-ed pieces and social commentary rather than just regurgitation of the facts.

    If this is the quality that they think is acceptable, I can only hope that the industry dies out sooner rather than later.

  • Comment number 5.

    I wonder if some of these sexually active people are using public transport to spread these diseases throughout communities; should we not think about curbing the use of buses to help safeguard our young people?

    Remove their mobile phones, computers, and other such evil communication devices as well - we would all be much safer. Surely it all the fault of the government, isn't it? More laws, more police power to stop, search and question these sorts of people and more video surveillance would surely help. Why has no -one mentioned Twitter yet?

  • Comment number 6.

    Oh wow. The news media sensationalising a story? Who'd have thought it?

    +1 for Cameron's idea. Report the news and don't put any spin on it. Try to go for a whole day without using any subjective words.

  • Comment number 7.

    Apart from the idiocy of the story and the lack of hard data to back it up there's the not particularly well hidden agenda behind the Murdoch-owned papers seizing any opportunity to rubbish Facebook - namely that Murdoch owns MySpace, which oddly enough, doesn't get linked into these mindless scare stories.

    The bigger story here though is just how bad our press has become. PR guff is reported as news, facts are routinely twisted to suit either the political agenda of the outlet or for simple sensationalism and columnists are happy to stir up whatever prejudices suit them then disingenuously claim it's nothing to do with them when other people start acting on the rubbish they spout.
    Take today's front pages. Any helpful analysis of what impact the budget is going to have on the national debt or on public services, or what exactly the Tories or Lib Dems would have done differently? Nope, just the pre-prepared front pages either rubbishing it or supporting it depending on the paper.

  • Comment number 8.

    Have you noticed, that people are still having sex? All the denouncement had absolutely no effect. Parents and counsellors constantly scorn them, but people are still having sex - and nothing seems to stop them.

    Do you realise, that people are still having sex? They have been told not to, perhaps they are perplexed? When you see them holding hands they’re making future plans to engage in the activity, do you understand?

    People are still having sex, lust keeps on lurking!

    (La Tour, of course...)

  • Comment number 9.

    I can't see how anyone who understands Facebook can think it's responsible for a significant rise in casual sex. A quick non-scientific search on Facebook brings up 17 groups with the words "casual sex" in them, some of these are not relevant, and none of the others have more than 400 members. The chances of finding a casual encounter in your town on Facebook seems remote at best.

    However, there are other free sites, some of which claim they're social networks (just to sound trendy), which are dating sites and have categories for "intimate encounters" etc. These other sites may indeed be a part of the chain of events which could lead to increases in STDs.

    But Facebook is the biggest thing the print media have heard of, they don't understand it and are therefore scared of it. So if there's a potential vague relationship between some bad news and some form of online technology, they'll blame Facebook. It's called sloppy journalism.

    The other thing is that the press are self-appointed moral arbiters and seem to think that consenting adults having casual sex is always bad thing. And they wonder why their readership is falling year on year.

  • Comment number 10.

    Facebook-bashing by the Sun is a fairly well documented activity. It would obviously have nothing to do with MySpace being another part of the Murdoch empire...

  • Comment number 11.

    Can you send your figures to @bengoldacre - he's going out of his mind on Twitter because NHS Tees are blanking him....

  • Comment number 12.

    I blame Gordon Brown!!! ;D

  • Comment number 13.

    I am a HIV prevention manager, most STD infections in United States Are users on the Craigslist sex with no strings site

  • Comment number 14.

    Social networking sites – doesn’t that term include the ever popular dating sites as well as the more specialist one catering for just people only looking for sexual hook-ups.

    Presumably the hacks in Mail/Telegraph land have only ever heard of one social networking site, they clearly don’t understand this new interweb thingy they’ve only just discovered exists; so anything they can hype as the latest great threat to civilisation as we know it (even looking at one will make you go blind, your willy will drop off, your wife will run off with a stranger – probably an asylum seeker – your children will be raped and killed by strangers) is now ascribed to FB as the public face of the interweb thingy.

    Its paranoia of a high order. Mind you The Mail in particular seems to be fast losing its grip on any semblance of reality; can the mental health act be used to detain a media outlet in the interests of their own health and safety and the protection of other persons?

  • Comment number 15.

    norm: And, from 2003, Women log on for one-night stands - UK news - The Observer , there's no news like old news.

  • Comment number 16.

    More depression from the papers. If it's not Gordon Brown responsible for everything from plague to impotence, it's Facebook responsible for the moral decline of humanity and Britain in particular.

    Makes you wonder what morons actually read the papers doesn't it? Maybe the papers aren't read at all as the people buying them can't actually read.

  • Comment number 17.

    I'm mortified that such drivel gets into the BBC, and I actually wasted my time reading it.

  • Comment number 18.

    Shock horror, 100% of face book users will at some time in their lives die.

  • Comment number 19.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 20.

    As I see it, there is a bit of a misconception in some parts of the passage. The author starts off saying televisions, phones, video games and social networking sites that have led to some of the bad effects of life. He goes on talking about Facebook, whose existence has encouraged casual sex which in turn causes syphilis. He supports his points with some sources. He finally ends up saying he does not blame social networking sites for the cause of syphilis. Details and causes of syphilis are well explained in the NHS website( ). NHS staff members are offered with [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

    As a matter of fact, even a simple scissor or knife has two sides. Knives and scissors have to be kept away from little children. One cannot blame knives because of the increasing amount of deaths caused due to stabbing.

    The internets and the facebooks have contributed in enormous good things in life. It is unfair to make any statements against them or blame them for common misfortunes. Those section of people that have exceeded the moral limits of life or those who indulge in illegal activities find their fate in the end. There is no point in blaming developing technologies that have done wonders to human life. A champion utility like the Facebook have made the world a very small place by bringing people closer, sharing great ideas between men and other such stuffs.


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