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.

by Altaira Northe

From June 5 to 8, I had the good fortune of attending the annual Canadian Science Writers’ Association (CSWA) Conference in Toronto. It was my first CSWA event, and it will most definitely not be my last.

While the first and last days of the conference opened and closed with tours of Toronto research facilities, the days in the middle were jam packed with lectures, panel discussions, and even a session of scientist speed dating.

Scientists speed dating. Credit: Paola Scattolon

Scientists speed dating. Credit: Paola Scattolon

One of the more popular sessions of the weekend, titled, “Is it Working? Assessing your Social Media Endeavours,” was a panel discussion about the merits of different social media outlets and how you can use analytics and feedback to see what’s working best for you. As you might have guessed, the conversation centred mostly on the heavy hitters, Facebook and Twitter.

While there are different drawbacks and positives to using both, all panelists agreed that more than anything a sense authenticity and simply having good content were more important than any social media strategy you might come up with.

Addressing the issue of authenticity, panelists agreed  that companies need to give up their fear of embracing their employees’ personal brands, and instead leverage the personal connection built when clients engage with a person online rather than a corporation.

On the Facebook front, attendees were warned to post better quality content less frequently. Unlike other social media outlets, when your followers don’t engage with your content, Facebook’s algorithm will actually decrease the chances that they will see your next post at all. In fact, panelists agreed that it was best to think of Facebook as a paid media channel than a true social media outlet.

The Science of Science Communication. Credit: Paola Scattolon

The Science of Science Communication. Credit: Paola Scattolon

Later that afternoon, the session on, “The Science of Science Communication,” addressed issues of gaining audience trust and attention, as well as the prevalence of junk science in the media. One large issue with science communication is that while scientists lo-o-o-ove facts, throwing facts at people is not necessarily the best way to teach them about science, especially not if you are aiming to change current beliefs or behaviours. To change attitudes, it is vital to appeal to a person’s set of entrenched values.

For me, the rest of the conference was a bit of a blur of shaking hands, and conversing with some really intelligent and interesting people from the science writing community, and hearing about incredibly fascinating research. But there were a few prevalent themes throughout the conference that really stuck with me:

See you next year in Saskatoon!

See you next year in Saskatoon!

(1) Authenticity — Not just in the social media session, but in just about every other session as well, this issue of authenticity came up again and again. Not to say that science writers lack authenticity, but when engaging with the public about information that they might not be familiar with, or might even find intimidating or off-putting, that extra bit of personal engagement is even more important. Finding the personal story that goes along with the science, and connecting with people on an emotional and human level makes the content relatable, and therefore a million times easier for your average reader to engage with.

(2) Failure; not such a bad thing — While there’s a propensity in today’s world to “always put your best foot forward,” talking about failure can help your reader to see the whole journey rather than seeing your story as an isolated incident of instant success. Sharing failure also goes a long way towards building on that first point of authenticity. On a more personal level, it was mentioned again and again that tracking and learning from your own failures is the best and fastest way to move forward and grow.

Overall, I would give the 2014 CSWA Conference an A+. It was a great balance of opportunities to learn and network, covering a breadth and depth of content that meant there was a little bit of something for everyone.

I’m very much looking forward to attending again next year, when the conference will be held in Saskatoon.

Altaira NortheA recent West Coast transplant to Toronto, Altaira Northe has worked primarily in academia, in the fields of Environmental and Health Sciences. She’s in love with science, and believes that science communication is one of the most important things that we as a society need to do better. More so, she’s interested in the intersections between the arts and sciences, and how fostering collaborative relationships between these disciplines can make life better for all of us.

Thank you to our partner, University of Toronto Science Engagement and to everyone who participated in our 43rd Annual Conference in Toronto, Ontario and helped make it such a success!


Our 44th annual conference will be held in partnership with the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

May 28-31, 2015




Arthur Chan

Assistant Professor

Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry, Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, University of Toronto


Arthur is interested in experimental and field studies of organic aerosol, and developing analytical techniques for studying complex mixtures.


  Birat KC

PhD Candidate

Center for Biomaterials and Biocomposites Processing ,Faculty of Forestry, University of Toronto


Design and Manufacturing of light-weight and bio-based structural composites. Barat and his research group have been focusing on designing and manufacturing of economically viable light-weight and bio-based structural composites for automotive applications. They have developed an integrated Direct Long Fiber Technology (D-LFT) and worked closely with Ford Motor Company of Canada to incorporate wood-based cellulose microfiber into prototype engine components. Initial calculations have shown 25% weight reduction on the part and other environmental benefits.


  David Lie
Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Secure and Reliable Computer Systems
Electrical & Computer Engineering, Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, University of Toronto


David’s research goal is to make computer systems safer and more reliable. With the large degree that computing has permeated our lives, from mobile smartphones to ubiquitous cloud computing, it is crucial that this infrastructure that we rely so heavily on be secure and reliable.  He takes a variety of approaches to achieving this goal including techniques using operating systems, computer architecture, formal verification and networking.


  Petra Lucker

Master’s student

Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry and Institute for Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering, University of Toronto


A Lifesaving, Reusable Surgical Kit for Use in Low-Resource Settings

Petra is enthusiastic about global health and strive to better the lives of underprivileged patients by transforming cutting edge technology into simple and affordable products. In collaboration with surgeon-inventors, the goal is to facilitate the commercialization of innovative medical technologies through integrated industrial design, engineering, and product development services. Petra is currently working on bringing a lifesaving, reusable surgical kit to the Philippines that allows doctors and nurses to perform tracheostomy safely in low-resource settings.

Alison McGuigan

Assistant Professor

Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry and Institute for Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering, University of Toronto


Focusing on engineering tissue morphogenesis for regenerative medicine and drug screening applications by mimicking developmental biology, Alison is interested in how cells integrate local and global signaling cues to make organizational decisions (such as cell movement and cytoskeleton arrangement). Her team creates engineering tools to mimicking and quantitatively model tissue organizational processes that occur in the developing embryo.


  Justin Nodwell

Professor & Chair

Department of Biochemistry, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto


Justin studies the way microorganisms use small molecules to communicate with each other, and how these processes can be used to discover new antibiotics, antifungal drugs and chemotherapeutic agents for treating cancer.



  Steven A Prescott, MD

Assistant Professor
Neurosciences & Mental Health, The Hospital for Sick Children and Physiology, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto


Steven’s research is in the area of pain and neural coding. His team’s ultimate goal is to uncover how the nervous system processes pain-related sensory information and how chronic pain arises from aberrations in that processing. To that end, we investigate the biophysical basis for neural information processing at the cellular and network levels.


  Luca Scardovi

Assistant Professor

Electrical & Computer Engineering, Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, University of Toronto


Luca works on mathematical modelling of complex systems such as neurons in the brain, schools of fish, or swarms of unmanned aerial vehicles. Figuring out how these systems synchronize themselves is the first step to designing methods to control them. For example, if we can determine the topology in the brain that leads to synchronization, eventually we may be able to design control systems to prevent asynchronous disorders such as Parkinson’s, amnesia or depression.


  Sajad Shirali-Shahreza

PhD Candidate

Computer Science, Faculty of Arts & Science, University of Toronto


The Internet became an essential part of human daily life and people have a growing set of consumer devices inside their homes that need Internet connectivity. They must then create a network in their homes to enable these devices access to the Internet and communicate with each other. Sajad is designing new networking systems that focus on home user needs with interfaces that are easier to use by modifying existing networking interfaces and changing the underlying technology.





Timothy N. Welsh

Associate Professor

Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education, University of Toronto


Me, Myself, and (virtual) I: What is known about how humans embody and act with axes, animals and avatars.

Tim’s overall research goal is to contribute to our understanding of the cognitive and neural processes that lead to goal-directed action. As the inaugural Coordinator for the Centre for Motor Control, Tim hopes to facilitate the development of new collaborations among researchers in the many areas of basic and applied science that generate and utilize knowledge of the processes underlying movement.


  Amro Zayed

Assistant Professor

Biology, Faculty of Science, York University


Amro studies the biology of social insects. He strives to understand how and why social behaviour evolves. He also develops new genetic tools to improve the health of declining bee populations. He was awarded the Governor General’s Academic Gold Medal in 2007, and currently holds an Early Researcher Award from the Province of Ontario.



"did you think you’d encounter any diet that would tell you to eat fewer beets? Bingo, here it is." - Kristina Campbell. Photo: Ed Yourdon

“Did you think you’d encounter any diet that would tell you to eat fewer beets? Bingo, here it is.” – Kristina Campbell. Photo: Ed Yourdon

By Kristina Campbell

This post was a follow-up to a previous post, Much Ado About Gluten.

With five million sufferers, Canada has one of the highest rates of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) in the world. Chances are pretty good you know someone with the condition. Yet an IBS diagnosis is one that’s based on reported symptoms, not any laboratory test. So studying such a condition in a scientific way poses a number of challenges.

There are definitely researchers looking for the cause of IBS, a disorder characterized by symptoms of diarrhea, constipation, gas, bloating, and abdominal pain that vary widely from person to person. But other researchers are just skipping ahead to treatments and then working backwards, testing what seems to work best. So far, a leading candidate for improving IBS symptoms is the “low FODMAP” diet.

FODMAP stands for “Fermentable Oligosaccharide, Disaccharide, Monosaccharide and Polyol”. These are specific kinds of carbohydrates that are found in everyday foods, and also used as food additives. The body absorbs FODMAP carbohydrates poorly, yet they’re also easily fermented. When FODMAP carbohydrates are broken down by the microorganisms that live in the the digestive tract, they may increase gas production in the colon and draw too much water into the small intestine. Common FODMAP sources include wheat, milk, onions and garlic, stone fruits, and beans. Not to mention pretty well all sweeteners, from honey to xylitol.

For the food conscious, it’s worth creating a new category in your head for FODMAPs, as it seems they’re set to become the next household name in food. There’s been a lot of buzz lately about a recent study that suggested that people who thought they were intolerant of gluten may actually be intolerant of a broader category–FODMAPs. But it’s not only the gluten-averse who should take note, previous studies have shown that FODMAP restriction is helpful for 68-76% of people with IBS. The effects seem to be dose-dependent, which is why the low FODMAP diet suggests a diet low in FODMAP sources rather than no FODMAP sources at all.

If you’re new to the concept, sorting out FODMAP-containing foods from non-FODMAP-containing foods is not an intuitive matter. On this diet, hard cheeses and mozzarella are okay, while milk and soft cheeses are taboo. Bananas and grapes are fine, but not apples or cherries. And did you think you’d encounter any diet that would tell you to eat fewer beets? Bingo, here it is.

If you think the line seems fuzzy between IBS and food intolerances, that’s because it is. Could it be that many cases of IBS are just undiscovered food intolerances? (That was the thinking behind the scientific search for non-celiac gluten intolerance.)

Practically, there isn’t much difference between someone whose doctor has given them the IBS diagnosis and who goes on a low FODMAP diet, and someone else who has no diagnosis but who feels better after cutting out wheat, dairy, and sugar (three of the big FODMAP sources in the Western diet). Both have symptoms to begin, and both see a reduction in symptoms after they change their diets.

There’s one caution about the low-FODMAP diet, however: it seems to reduce the concentration of Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli bacteria in the intestines. We’re not really sure what this means, given that gut microbiota research is still at such an early stage, but studies lean toward the idea that these bacteria in the gut are a very good thing. So if the low FODMAP diet reduces them, it’s not clear what the effects could be on the immune system or on long-term health.

Vancouver Wedding PhotographerKristina Campbell is a gut bacteria science critic who writes for the Gut Microbiota For Health Experts Exchange and blogs about digestive health.

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