March 24 2014 06:06 PM

when you can just become a human guinea pig?

fake buzzfeed
Illustration by Lindsey Voltoline

I promise this isn't going to be another screed about the latest Internet trend that's driving me absolutely nuts. 

But before I get to the thing that is not-a-screed, I have to start by telling you that there's this one new Internet trend that's driving me absolutely nuts. But before I even get to that, I just need to have a quick meta-screed: Why isn't there a verb tense of "screed"? Doesn't it totally make sense to say, "Hey, I'm about to scree about Buzzfeed's online quizzes?" OK, pre-screed over, now for the mini-screed before I actually get to the point.

Buzzfeed's "Which [character / celebrity / inanimate object] Are You?" online quizzes—oh, these just suck. It used to be that with a quiz like this, there'd be some—well, not scientific, but at least logical reason why I'm Barf from Spaceballs. Those were fun. Now, I'm pretty sure Buzzfeed is being deliberately arbitrary, relying on pure peer pressure to drive pure, shameless clickbait. Everyone wants to know which Kraft salad dressing represents them after they learn their best friends on Facebook were Catalina and Creamy Italian. 

Mini-screed over. Thinking about Buzzfeed's quizzes made me curious to check out, the government's hub for health experiments, to see what opportunities there are to become a real Internet test subject. 

Insomniacs: No less than five health studies are currently recruiting insomniacs to try out Internet tools designed to help them sleep. The obvious joke here is: If you want to go to sleep, shut down your damned browser. Really, though, most of these studies are just measuring how cognitive-behavioral therapy delivered via a website compares with therapy delivered the old-fashioned way, by a human being, usually one with glasses, a pen and a soothing new-age manner. 

For example, the cleverly named SHUTi program (Sleep Healthy Using the Internet) from the University of Virginia involves a five-part online course and sleep journal. As a bonus, participants receive a cumulative $200 in gift certificates for sticking with the program a full year. So far, only the University of Manitoba has published results of such as study, finding that "psychiatric comorbidity and education moderated the impact of treatment on fatigue and that sleep symptom comorbidity moderated the impact of treatment on maladaptive attitudes about sleep." I have no idea what that means, but I certainly drifted off reading it.

A lot of federal money is devoted to veterans' health care, but not nearly enough, so it makes sense that health researchers are looking for ways to treat conditions specific to the retired war-fighter population (particularly mental-health issues) on a larger scale, but without expanding resources. There are studies about using online tools to help veterans of the Iraq war quit smoking and help families of veterans welcome them home. 

One fascinating experiment currently recruiting participants is the "Virtual Hope Box." According to Aysha Crain, a social worker and research coordinator at the Portland VA, which is running the study, they've seen success counteracting suicidal thoughts by having veterans prepare a "self-soothing box" to help them "remember better times through favorite photos, gifts and notes, and by using distraction tools or games like Sudoku or crossword puzzles." This project is evaluating the efficacy of digitizing this experience so that it's accessible via smartphone. 

Cell-phone users with bad hearts:
One of the most shocking pieces of information I came across while researching this column comes from a German research project: No one has ever conducted a systematic study of whether smartphones can interfere with pacemakers. The details aren't clear, but I imagine they'll be monitoring people with pacemakers who have cell phones and comparing them with people with pacemakers but no cell phones, as opposed to just wanding patients with an iPhone until their hearts stop.

Video gamers: I usually groan when researchers launch studies designed to emphasize the negative impacts of video gaming, and the clinical-trials site is filled with experiments on the connection between violent video games and serotonin levels and the effect of video games on a kid's lunchtime appetite. However, I'm glad to see researchers are also looking into the possibilities of video games in treating amputees, rehabilitating addicts (especially smokers) and preventing the spread of HIV. 

So, let's play the Buzzfeed game: Which obscure clinical trial are you? 

Email or follow him on Twitter @Maassive.


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