Killerwhales_jumpingby Leanne Louie

Babel fish and Vogons may be the stuff of fiction, but The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy was right about the intelligence of one marine species: dolphins.

Emerging science suggests that dolphins, alongside their toothed whale cousins (orcas and porpoises), may be the world’s ‘second-smartest animal,’ rising even above the great apes.

The larger an animal’s brain relative to its body, the more brain matter is available for complex cognition. The human encephalization quotient (EQ) is around 7.5— meaning our brains are 7.5 times as massive as expected of an animal our size. Toothed whales have EQ second in size to humans, ranging from 2 to 5.

Why Bigger Brains?

Why did such different species both evolve highly developed brains? Although we differ in many regards, whales and humans also share quite a few characteristics—we both evolved as hunters, live in social communities and lack penile bones. (Okay, only two of those are relevant.)

Social, community-living organisms tend to have higher EQs than similar but solitary animals. Living in complex, interactive societies, humans have the most highly developed brains in the animal kingdom. Among the cetaceans, it’s the toothed whales, who live in groups, rather than the more solitary baleen whales that have the highest EQs.

Research indicates that diet also seems to significantly influence brain size. Given the forethought and planning required of hunters, carnivores tend to have high EQs. The high-energy carnivorous diet also allows for more neural development than a diet of plants or insects.

As both highly social animals and adept hunters, it’s clear why toothed whales have such high EQs. In some respects, their brains actually rise above ours. Some of their neural transmission speeds are faster, and their brains have a higher ratio of surface area to volume. Caused by increased convolutions (the folds, or ridges found on the surface of the brain), a large brain surface area is known to be a strong sign of complex intelligence.

Toothed whales’ intellectual capacity is also evident in their everyday behavioural patterns. Dolphins and orcas can interpret and respond to complex directions from trainers, indicating an understanding of symbolic representations. Dolphins also use tools efficiently, with some species using sponges, shells, and self-blown bubble nets to streamline hunting techniques. They’re even able to recognize themselves in mirrors, a rare ability that indicates a sense of self-knowledge and awareness.

The ability that truly sets toothed whales apart from other animals is their capacity for learning. In captivity, they’re able to master complex routines set out by trainers, showing a particular aptitude for mimicry. Dolphins and orcas alike are expert imitators, often mimicking each other’s actions and even human postures. Imitation is one of the greatest indicators of social learning abilities.

In the wild, toothed whales display an even wider array of learned abilities. Orca mothers instruct their young in hunting techniques and dolphins employ learned tool-use. In the northern Pacific, different orca families are known to communicate using unique dialects learned from their peers. These behaviours are considered to be indications of culture— the transmission of learned behaviour.

Cognition and Identity

The advanced learning abilities of toothed whales imply a great depth of social cognition— awareness of and attention to the actions of others. Indeed, scientists have discovered a special type of cell in the brains of some cetaceans, one previously found only in humans and great apes. Called spindle cells, they’re involved in emotions and social bonding, and early research suggests some whales (including orcas) could have even more spindle cells than humans.

Furthermore, the paralimbic brain region, an area involved in the processing of emotion, is larger and more elaborate in orcas than humans. This leads to researchers like Lori Marino (the neuroscientist featured in the documentary Blackfish) to speculate orcas might lead highly emotional lives, perhaps even more so than our own.

In an interview with The Raptor Lab, Marino presented some other interesting possibilities. She proposed that toothed whales could have a distributed sense of self, almost an inability to separate their own identities from the collective. This theory would certainly explain a few of their more interesting behavioural patterns, like their synchronized movements and mass stranding events— where entire groups of whales beach themselves for no apparent reason.

Whether there is any truth to this theory of collective identity or not, it’s unquestionable that toothed whales are capable of emotional bonding and long-term social relationships. Instead of fleeing, whales released after being netted have been observed to remain alongside their still-captured companions. Dolphins call out to each other by name when separated and orcas usually stay with their families their entire lives. Some males have been known to fall in to depressive states and even die following the deaths of their mothers. Mothers seem to show a similar devotion to their young, one seen carrying her deceased calf on the water’s surface for hours. These types of actions have little or no survival value, indicating a different driving force— emotion, perhaps even love.

In light of these revelations, human society is starting to view these impressive creatures differently. Legislators in California are attempting to ban the captivity and commercial use of orcas, and in India, dolphins have been labeled non-human persons with their own set of rights.

Persons or not, it’s clear that toothed whales are capable of much more than simple circus tricks. The extent of these capabilities, we may never know. Short of leaping in to the mind of a whale, it will be difficult to ever fully understand the intellectual and emotional complexities of these organisms—but treating them with the respect they deserve is a great first step.

leanneLeanne Louie is a writer and biology student at McGill University. Read more of her work at


by David Millar

Considering the impact manmade carbon dioxide is having on the world — global warming and climate change — it’s sometimes easy to forget other factors contribute to a warming world. As science writers it is important we present a balanced picture, and a couple of recent stories from the Antarctic illustrate the pitfalls when writing about climate change and the ease of jumping to misleading conclusions.

Thwaites Glacier, west Antarctica, one of the ice streams which has started to ‘collapse’, or pour its ice uncontrollably into the sea. [Image courtesy NASA.]

Thwaites Glacier, west Antarctica, one of the ice streams which has started to ‘collapse’, or pour its ice uncontrollably into the sea. [Image courtesy NASA.]

There is no doubt that our production of CO2 leads to warmer air temperatures, which in turn contribute to more extreme weather , for example more frequent hurricanes, heavier precipitation events, or harsher droughts. But thiswas not always the case. There are many examples of natural climate change long before anthropogenic CO2 existed, often so severe it destroyed civilizations – such as the droughts that devastated the earliest civilizations in the Middle East 4,000 years ago, the Maya 1,200 years ago, or the mini-ice age that killed crops in Europe between 1550 and 1850.[1]

Climate change studies focus a lot on the Antarctic for two reasons: its presence as a large area of permanent ice at the pole dominates global air circulation patterns and hence weather systems across the planet. It also contains 90 percent of the world’s ice, an amount so large that if it melted, sea-levels worldwide would rise by over 60 metres, far more than could happen any other way (thermal expansion of the oceans caused by warmer air, which threatens the Maldives and other low-lying areas, would most likely only raise it by six to nine metres. A big deal, of course, if you live in these areas).

The rate of change of the surface elevation of the Antarctic ice sheet resulting from basal melting, as recently reported. The glaciers where most melting is occurring can easily be seen as dark red or black. Image courtesy ESA.

The rate of change of the surface elevation of the Antarctic ice sheet resulting from basal melting, as recently reported. The glaciers where most melting is occurring can easily be seen as dark red or black. Image courtesy ESA.

The past few months saw the publication of two major studies[2] [3] which were widely reported because they concluded firstly that the rate of melting of the Antarctic ice sheet has dramatically accelerated (doubling in four years), and secondly that the collapse of three major glaciers which drain the west Antarctic ice sheet has now passed the point of no return and will eventually raise global sea levels by three metres. The latter was even described by the American magazine Mother Jones as a ‘holy shit moment for climate change science’, and other newspaper reports cited the studies as yet more evidence of the havoc we are wreaking on the world’s climate. Was this fair and representative science writing? Not really.

Perhaps the most common failure in the media was to present these results in perspective. Not a single article that I saw mentioned the crucial fact that the Antarctic has been slowly melting for around 20,000 years – in fact ever since the end of the last ice age.[4] In other words the melting started long before anthropogenic CO2 came on the scene, and in fact even before modern human industrialization. And even though the new studies show that the rate of melt has recently increased, such sudden increases have been observed at least eight times over the past 20,000 years.4

The headline result of the first study, that the rate of melting of the Antarctic is now estimated at 159 billion tonnes per year, was widely quoted – but again no one put it in perspective by pointing out that this enormous amount being lost each year represents only 0.0006 percent of the total ice sheet mass. That sounds much less catastrophic, doesn’t it? In fact at that rate it would take almost 2,000 years for the entire ice sheet to melt, so plenty of time to get those sandbags around the door. In fact, the authors of the study even stated that it would take 200 to 900 years for the effects of the melting to be noticeable, but very few commentators mentioned that rather mundane, yet key fact.

Neither of the studies looked at the underlying causes of the observed melting, other than to comment that since the glaciers in question were on the coast, presumably increased ocean temperatures were to blame. Even so, many journalists jumped to the conclusion that increased ocean temperatures must have been caused by warmer air temperatures due to anthropogenic activities (even though the atmospheric circulation around the Antarctic actually makes this unlikely, since the circumpolar vortex semi-isolates the polar regions from the air circulation in the northern hemisphere where the bulk of the manmade CO2 is produced). A glance at the map of where the melting has been observed, all in one small area of west Antarctica, should also raise suspicions: if the cause were truly global warming then why is most of the melting just in one place?

Last month two more studies provided what may be the answer. One showed that the geothermal heat flow in the area where the melting has been observed is several times higher than is normal for the continent due to an area of volcanism,[5] meaning that the base of the ice sheet in this specific area is effectively being slowly cooked from below by the earth’s natural heat. A second study discovered an active volcano beneath the ice sheet not far away. It is now clear that this volcanism is most likely the dominant factor responsible for the melting observed by the first two studies, meaning that atmospheric global warming plays a much smaller role or quite possibly none at all.

How does this leave the press coverage of these important climate change research? In retrospect much of it was really quite misleading. It implied that manmade CO2 was to blame and that sea levels would rise in the near future as a result, when the truth was that it had little or nothing to do with CO2, and sea levels would in any case take hundreds of years to have any observable impact. The moral? All of us in science journalism have a duty to present developments responsibly to the general public. We should all be very concerned about the impact we are having on our weather, but anthropogenic CO2 is not to blame for all climate change phenomena and in this case the melting of the Antarctic ice sheet is something that was happening long before we came on the scene, and there is no evidence to date that its recent acceleration is due to our activities.


David MillarDavid Millar is a science writer with an interest in past climate change. He is a former Assistant Editor of Nature and holds a PhD in Antarctic glaciology.

[1] The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization, by Brian Fagan, Basic Books, 2004

[2] Increased ice losses from Antarctica detected by CryoSat-2 by Malcolm McMillan, Andrew Shepherd, Aud Sundal, Kate Briggs, Alan Muir, Andrew Ridout, Anna Hogg and Duncan Wingham published in Geophysical Research Letters DOI: 10.1002/2014GL060111

[3] Widespread, rapid grounding line retreat of Pine Island, Thwaites, Smith and Kohler glaciers, West Antarctica from 1992 to 2011 by E. Rignot, J. Mouginot, M. Morlighem, H. Seroussi and B. Scheuchl published in Geophyiscal Research Letters. DOI: 10.1002/2014GL060140

[4] Millennial-scale variability in Antarctic ice-sheet discharge during the last deglaciation, by M.E.Weber et al, Nature, vol 510, 134-135, 2014, doi:10.1038/nature13397

[5] Evidence for elevated and spatially variable geothermal flux beneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, by D.M. Schroder et al, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2014, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1405184111


Dandelion rubber rebounds as a promising source of natural rubber

By Meredith Hanel

dandelion truck‘Tis that time of year when suburbanites go to war each weekend to prevent their lawn from being overrun by dandelions. Yet, this lowly plant is being cultivated by research labs in Canada, Germany and the USA because that white liquid you see when you break off the stems contains something valuable to the world – rubber.

Eighty per cent of rubber is produced in Southeast Asia from the Amazonian Para rubber tree. Yet the reign of the rubber tree may at an end due to decreased land availability and disease. Land designated to rubber tree plantations in Southeast Asia is being replaced with more economical palm oil plantations. Since rubber trees are genetically homogeneous, they are vulnerable to South American Leaf Blight, which has already made it impossible to grow rubber trees for commercial use in their native South America.

Dandelions produce rubber of equal quality to rubber trees and have advantages over other rubber producing plants because they grow quickly and can be grown in a variety of climates and conditions. You can even make your own homemade rubber bands of dandelion goop. However only certain species of dandelion produce enough rubber to compete with the rubber tree.

Decreased transport time to production sites and ability to make use of marginal agricultural land are some ‘green’ reasons that the dandelion rubber project in Germany won a
GreenTec award in May 2014. Biotech firm Nova-BioRubber of British Columbia plans to make dandelion rubber production even ‘greener’ by using a physical extraction method rather than using solvents, which can also produce a hypoallergenic latex, a plus for latex gloves, condoms and catheters. Dandelion root as an alternative source of rubber is receiving some strong backing from tire giants like Bridgestone and Continental.

Dandelions lost and found
Interest in dandelion rubber is not new. In 1931, scientists discovered the Russian dandelion (Taraxacum koksaghyz) in Southeastern Kazakhstan as a promising source of rubber after Joseph Stalin demanded that the Soviet Union have their own source of rubber. By the mid 1950s, as politics changed and rubber could again be acquired cheaply from rubber tree plantations, interest in the dandelion flagged.

In the last 5-10 years, due to the predicted inability of rubber tree plantations to keep up with increasing global demand, interest in the high rubber producing dandelion species T. koksaghyz renewed, but it could not be cultivated as all of the stored samples were actually of another species Taraxacum brevicorniculatum, a weed that had contaminated the samples and is a poorer producer of rubber. Surely there were a few disappointed Ph.D. students who had spent long hours working on the wrong dandelion species, T. brevicorniculatum!

In 2008, scientists on expeditions to Kazakhstan found the lost Russian dandelion putting research into this potential resource back on track.

Meanwhile, despite it being a poorer producer, researchers are now capitalizing on some of
T. brevicorniculatum attributes.  Unlike T. koksahyz which reproduces sexually, T. brevicorniculatum has fast reproduction of identical clones, which is great for testing growing conditions and makes teasing out the molecular biology of latex far simpler. This makes it a great model plant to learn more about how plants make rubber and how we may manipulate them to make more rubber that is easy to extract. Still, the Russian dandelion, T. koksaghyz is the star rubber producer needed to make rubber at a reasonable cost.

Dandelion rubber challenges
While dandelions are quicker to grow than rubber trees, pulling dandelions out of the ground and bashing up the roots to extract latex involves more processing steps than does tapping the bark of a rubber tree. To bring down production costs, genetic modifications can improve rubber production in dandelions. A German research group improved extraction by knocking out a gene involved in coagulation, making the latex more fluid. Non-GMO approaches, crossing the Russian dandelion with other dandelion species, are used by Dutch biotech company KeyGene. The competition is on to find the most efficient way to get rubber from dandelions. And maybe someday suburban warriors will be weeding the grass out of their dandelion beds.

headshot (2)Meredith earned her PhD in medical genetics and  spent many years in the lab doing research in molecular and developmental biology related to medicine. Meredith works in science outreach with Scientists in School. She enjoys writing about science and loves to find out the biology behind just about anything in nature. You can read her blog at



Kirschner, J. et al. (2013) Available ex situ germplasm of the potential rubber crop Taraxacum koksaghyz belongs to the poor rubber producer, T. brevicorniculatum. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution. 60: 455-471.

Venkatachalam, P. et al. (2013) Natural rubber producing plants: An overview. African Journal of Biotechnology. 12(12): 1297-1310.

Wahler, D. et al. (2012) Proteomic analysis of latex from the rubber-producing plant Taraxacum brevicorniculatum. Proteomics. 12: 901-905.

Wahler, D. et al. (2009) Polyphenoloxidase silencing affects latex coagulation in Taraxacum species. Plant Physiology. 151(1): 334-346.
On the Rebound: Scientists revive search for new rubber sources. Science News, August 2013

Fraunhofer and Continental come together when the dandelion rubber meets the road. Fraunhofer Press Release, October 2013

Dutch Biotech Firm to Make Car Tires From Hybrid Dandelions. Inhabitat weblog, February 2013

Abbotsford company’s Russian dandelion could provide eco-friendly rubber. The Vancouver Sun, May 2014

Continental Wins GreenTec Award 2014 for Dandelion rubber. Continental Press Release, May 2014

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Alongside the printed book, the Science Writers' Handbook also has a regularly-updated blog.

Alongside the printed book, The Science Writers’ Handbook also has a regularly-updated blog.

By Jimmy Thomson

Hannah Hoag is a Canadian freelance science journalist and editor who has been published in NatureNew ScientistDiscover, National Geographic News (online), Canadian Geographic, among many others. In 2013 she published a chapter in The Science Writers’ Handbook, a detailed guide that will guide a write through everything from finding stories and carving out a niche, all the way to filing invoices and networking with editors. Hoag’s chapter covered the art of setting up a workspace.

CSWA: Where did the idea for The Science Writers’ Handbook come from?

Hannah Hoag: The group had been around for several years, exchanging advice over email about various aspects of science writing and freelancing. One day in 2008, someone commented that we had a wealth of information that others might find useful and suggested we write a book together. The proposal was partially in jest, but after several months we realized that it might actually work. Although we had originally thought we might self-publish the book, we wound up with a generous grant from the National Association for Science Writers, an agent, a book proposal that went to auction, a publisher and an advance. Then we had to actually write the thing!

Why did the book take the shape (i.e. multiple SciLancers writing individual chapters) that it did?

We’ve always shared the work within the group, and it was only natural to divvy up the chapters among the writers. Each chapter emerged from past email discussions, and some extra ones that we thought would be helpful to other science writers, and we chose the ones we were interested in writing.

Why did you take on the chapter you did, on setting up a workplace?

I wrote the chapter “Creating Creative Spaces” because I was intrigued by the various office set-ups writers had, but also because I was struck by the lack of thought some new freelancers were putting into their businesses. When you freelance, you’re balancing something else, usually your responsibilities at home, whatever they may be, and it can be difficult to maintain that separation of work and the rest of life. Most of us find that when you do manage to carve out a separate workspace, both your professional and personal life benefit.

At what stage in a journalist’s career would you recommend that he or she get a shared workspace?

I don’t know many freelance science journalists who work exclusively in a shared workspace. Of those who do co-share office space, most opt for limited-use memberships that give them several days of access to a desk each month. Forgetting the additional cost for the moment, a co-working space can be good way to avoid the social isolation that often comes with freelancing. On the Pitch, Publish, Prosper blog, Bryn Nelson describes his co-working space at Office Nomads, in Seattle. He goes about once a week. In addition to the social benefits, Bryn found a web designer through the co-working space and has joined in on some of the events it hosts.

What are some drawbacks to sharing a workspace, besides the cost?

The drawbacks are all relative–and dependent on the co-working space itself. Commuting might not be your thing, and depending on the plan you choose, you may have to share a large table with 3 or 5 others, which you might find restrictive or distracting. If you’re thinking about joining a co-working space, see if you can test it out first.

Do you use a standing desk? Why or why not?

I don’t use a standing desk, but I am considering it. There’s a reasonable amount of evidence to suggest that sitting for 8 hours a day is not a great thing. I used one briefly this winter for a day and I really liked it for some things but less for others. The cost of a standing desk is a deterrent for most freelance writers, especially if you want to be able to adjust the height of the desk throughout the day, which is something I’m interested in. At the moment, I’m researching standing-desk hacks to see if I can make a nice adjustable standing desk at a fraction of the cost of buying one.

What’s the very basic setup, including hardware, software (and credit for things like Dropbox and Skype) and furniture that every freelance journalist should have?

These days you don’t have to spend a lot of money on equipment or software. For a print journalist, you need to have, at minimum, have a computer or tablet set-up that gives you reliable access to the Internet and word processing software, and a telephone. With Google Drive and the Apple OS you can create and store your documents in the cloud. Just make sure that you’re still able to read your editor’s comments and suggestions. By far, the industry standard is to use Microsoft Word to pass written texts back and forth between editors and writers. It’s also useful to have a digital camera and digital recorder, but it’s not essential.

I use Dropbox and Skype almost daily. When I’m on the road, I store all my story notes in a Dropbox folder. And I do almost all my interviews by Skype these days. Many scientists prefer it, partly because they can pass you links, documents and photos while they’re talking to you. If you do video-Skype calls you can get a sense of a scientist’s workspace–you might even ask her to give you a tour of the lab and show you her work. A good headset goes far, too, because it frees up your hands to take notes and gives you the chance to move around while you’re working. As for furniture, you probably only need a solid table and an ergonomic chair.

Is it any different for science journalists?

The basic set up can be a little different for a science journalist. A lot of science journalism still relies on access to embargoed and published journal articles. It’s worth identifying the important journals in your beat and making sure your name is on their lists. Accessing published journal articles can be even more difficult. Sometimes you can gain access through a university or public library membership, professional organizations, or connected friends and colleagues.

The industry is changing quickly. Is there anything you would change if you were to update your chapter in the Handbook?

Five years from now, I could see myself unencumbered by a printer, a scanner, or a large desktop computer. My laptop or tablet would be lightweight and connected to a large external monitor. I would store most of my documents, including photos, audio and video, in the cloud, and keep only the most sensitive files on an external drive. I imagine that with widespread free/cheap reliable internet access, I’d be able to work almost anywhere. My chapter on creating your creative space does drop names for specific tools, but more than that it tries to paint a picture of the basic tasks or actions you need to be able to do. We each have favourite apps and devices, and as new ones are released, we’ll see how they fit into the business of freelance journalism.

The book covers the topic of writing books as a science writer; is it an accurate description of the process of writing this particular book?

Emma Marris wrote the chapter “Going Long: How to Sell a Book”. The book-writing experience is going to vary from writer to writer, but I think Emma’s description of the process is a good representation of how we wrote The Science Writers’ Handbook. We were passionate about the idea, got an agent, set up the appropriate business structure, established roles and deadlines, collaborated a ton, and publicized the book by doing speaking engagements, organizing panels at conferences, hosting book launch parties, and getting it into the hands of journalism instructors.

Why did the Handbook turn into a blog? Do you see that as something that more books will do in the future?

The book’s blog,, has always been an integral part of the book. We launched the website several months before the book was published to promote the book and market it to our target audience. It was a place where we could advertise book launch events, virtual mentoring, and other author appearances. But we also launched the site because we knew we had a lot of material that had fallen to the cutting room floor–and that there would continue to be more to say about the craft and business of science writing. We’re also on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

Many book authors have some sort of online presence, whether a website, blog, or some other social media presence. An online presence helps build a stronger community and promotes book sales long after the original publication date.

Jimmy Thomson is a freelance journalist. His work has been published in The Globe and Mail, VICE, and Canadian Geographic, and he is starting a new journalism website, WORST. Jimmy lives in Vancouver , and you can find him online at and @j_ws_t.


by Anne Steinø

Visual by Anne Steino. Photo of girl by Sasha Wolff from Wikicommons.

Visual by Anne Steino. Photo of girl by Sasha Wolff from Wikicommons.

Are you reading this from home, in a coffee shop, or perhaps sitting on a mountain top in one of Canada’s national parks?

This past spring, Parks Canada suggested offering Wi-Fi Internet access in up to 50 national parks and historic sites across Canada by the summer of 2014. The suggestion was met with substantial criticism from the public, as the national parks serve as a place of seclusion and calm for many Canadians, relieving them from the stress of keeping up with emails and social media. Parks Canada, however, argue that they are merely responding to a demand from their visitors who want to stay in touch while visiting the parks. The topic divided Canada and many valid points were raised on both sides, like the benefits of being able to access Google maps vs. the online distractions getting in the way of connecting with nature.

I have yet to make up my mind, but the vigorous discussion piqued my interest in the health-related aspects of always having online access — particularly mental health. While the impacts of Wi-Fi in national parks are hard to tease out from the studies I found, there are repercussions of heavy Internet use in general. Although nothing concrete can be said about Parks Canada’s suggestion and how healthy or unhealthy it might be, researchers know a fair amount about heavy Internet use in general.

A quick scan of the scientific literature shows that heavy Internet use — defined differently in each study — is strongly linked to mental health problems, especially in young people. But is it simply the number of hours spent surfing the Internet that affects our mental health? Or is it the things we choose to look at online that are potentially harmful? Or perhaps it is merely the time it takes away from doing something else? Does the act of surfing the Internet somehow affect our brains and push them into a more depression prone state?

In 2002, more than 7000 adolescent boys and girls were asked about their Internet habits and their mental health. They were divided into four groups based on number of hours online per week.

  • Heavy Internet users; more than 2 hours/day
  • Regular Internet users; several days/week and less than 2 hours/day
  • Occasional Internet users; less than 1 hour/ week
  • Non Internet users

The results showed that heavy internet users were more frequently depressed than regular and occasional Internet users. Surprisingly though, those who did not use the Internet at all were just as depressed as the heavy Internet users. Either end of the spectrum seemed to predispose young people to depression, which perhaps tells us that it is our relationship with the Internet more than the Internet itself that impacts our mental health, and that an obsessive relationship, resulting in countless hours in front of the screen, is just as bad as a fearful relationship shying away from all contact with the Internet.

Many teenagers recognize their Internet use as heavy but refuse to call it an addiction. They often display addictive behaviours, however, without knowing it, and both heavy Internet use and Internet addiction are linked to depression and anxiety in the literature (a recognized tool for assessing possible Internet addiction is available here). But which came first, the chicken or the egg? Does it start with mental health problems and end in specific Internet behaviours, or is it the other way around?

This question was posed by a group of researchers in a 2010 study of 13-18 year old adolescents. It concluded that young people who are initially free of mental health problems, but use the Internet pathologically, can develop depression as a consequence. At the beginning of the study, the researchers used the Young’s Internet Addiction Scale to determine whether the Internet use had a pathological nature or not. At the same time, the adolescents were assessed for anxiety and depression. Nine months later, the measurements were repeated. After adjusting for other potentially confounding factors like area of residence, physical activity level, and study burden, the researchers found that the relative risk of depression for those who used the Internet addictively was about 2.5 times higher than for those who were not addicted to the Internet. From this study it appears that the act of surfing the web can actually bring out mental illness in teenagers all on its own.

So what is a safe number of online hours? There probably isn’t one number. In the 2002 study, two hours a day was considered heavy use. But times have changed, and the impact of those two hours might be equivalent to the impact of a much higher number today. There is no finite number we can use to navigate an online world, and we have to use our best judgement when we decide to log on or off. Excessive Internet use —whatever that is — has some very significant ties to poor mental health, and it seems that especially young people are vulnerable.

So should we install Wi-Fi in our national parks? Well, it might compel some teenagers to stay at the campground with their iPads instead of going hiking with the family. But then again, it might also convince them to come to the campground in the first place.

Anne SteinoAnne Steino earned her PhD in biochemistry in Denmark in 2008. Since then she has juggled her love for science and communication through a postdoc position at the University of British Columbia, writing articles for a high school biology portal, tutoring UBC medical students and numerous science communications projects in the Vancouver area.

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