Facebook Flab

Obesity remains one of the leading preventable causes of death worldwide. As it currently stands obesity causes up to three hundred and sixty five thousand deaths every year in the United States alone. In the past frenzied efforts to pin down a single cause for the epidemic identified a number of contributing factors with everything from television to fast-food being subject to particular scrutiny. However in recent years many have singled out a new enemy in the battle against society’s ever-extending waistline. That enemy is none other than Mark Zuckerberg.

Since they were first introduced websites like Facebook and Twitter have brought about a cultural metamorphosis, completely revolutionising the way we communicate with each other and adding a new dimension to modern life. Millions of people now do a large portion of their socialising whilst sat in front of a computer screen. However despite the innumerable benefits of social media there is concern for the effect our rapidly growing online presence is having on our health.

Despite its countless functions I have always regarded Facebook as a tool to alleviate boredom. The constant stream of new information combined with the opportunity to dip in and out of the lives of your peers allows it to act as the mistress of every self-proclaimed gossip hound as well as the seasoned procrastinator’s best friend. Hours can be wasted away scrolling lazily down the profile of a close friend or staring longingly at the holiday pictures of a crush so secret their name defies vocalisation. It is estimated that 1.2 billion people have a Facebook account and that they each spend on average over 15 hours interacting with it every month, 15 hours that could be spent going a light jog round the neighbourhood. Technological advances have meant that Facebook is becoming more accessible than ever before. We can post through our computers, our phones, our iPods, our television’s and countless other mediums. Scientists often speculate that in the far-but-not-too-far future we could be having social media updates beamed directly into our heads. It is arguable that the biggest threat Facebook poses to our health, if any, is by offering us something infinitely more interesting than exercise that is forever evolving and constantly available. I posed this argument to fellow Facebook users and received a varied response. One user, Emma Sheer (18)  agreed commenting,

“I spend too much time online, whenever I have something due in or even if I’m just bored I always end up on Facebook. I used to run a lot before I joined but now I barely go.”

Others completely opposed the argument with user Jill Hyslop (18) saying,

“You can’t just blame Facebook though; there are a million other things more entertaining than exercise, TV for example. If people have the motivation to exercise then I highly doubt Facebook would stop them from doing it.”

Facebook’s debatable role in ensuring the continued existence of the obesity epidemic could also stem from advertising. Thousands of companies advertise on Facebook whether it is via links to their respective websites that crop up on the edge of the homepage or by having their own accounts. Numerous companies go so far as to assign professionals to control and maintain their accounts, regularly updating them with new information about deals and offers. Previous investigations into the issue of obesity unmasked culprits such as TV stations, fast-food companies and video games. Nowadays innumerable brands that fall into these categories are equipped with some kind of connection to Facebook and other social media outlets. ‘McDonald’s’ came under fire from scores of individuals for playing a substantial part in the rise in childhood obesity with particular attention being paid to their advertising campaigns. Years later their Facebook page has over 25 million subscribers. The same goes for big brand television programmes like ‘How I Met Your Mother’ and ‘The Big Bang Theory’ as well as popular games distributors such as ‘EA (Electronic Arts) Games’. Facebook’s advertising system is also unique in that it promotes companies and initiatives that the user has expressed an active interest in. This means that a person who has for example ‘liked’ the McDonald’s page will receive more links to offers and promotions from them on their homepage. Not only does Facebook – a powerful distraction in itself – constantly bombard us with reminders that other distractions are available, it reminds us that other distractions which we enjoy are also available. So in this sense is Facebook merely an enabler or does the facts that it gives the companies a platform for widespread reach make it the primary adversary of those striving for a healthier lifestyle?

To garner feedback on the matter I created a Facebook poll asking users to answer yes or no to the question “Would you say you are influenced by advertisements on Facebook?” 32 people replied with 21 answering yes and 11 answering no. Users Akash Sharma (18) and Miranda Whitmarsh (21), both of whom voted ‘yes’ in the poll offered further comment saying,

“It might be subconscious but I am always aware of the pop ups at the side of the screen, it probably does influence the things on my mind when I log off.”

“I do recognise influence from advertisements on Facebook but it isn’t all negative! Loads of gyms and health food companies advertise on it too. It all depends on the person.”

The issue of personal input lends an interesting angle to the argument. We pour our lives into Facebook and it responds accordingly, reminding us every day of the things that are important to us. Many would argue that it shouldn’t be persecuted for advertising to us the things we openly enjoy just because they might be unhealthy in the long run. It’s arguable that a healthy lifestyle is defined by a healthy outlook and that Facebook merely reflects our individual outlooks.

It might be unfair to lay blame entirely on Zuckerberg’s online empire for the current rate of obesity but at the same time it would be naïve not to take into account the ways in which it can affect our lives.

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