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Nicola Laver

Editor, Solicitors Journal

How to virtually destroy your health

How to virtually destroy your health


Bob Murray warns of the addictive nature of social media and its impact on the immune system

My good friend Michael (not his real name) was killed by covid-19. He’s not the only lawyer, or even the only British lawyer I know who has met a similar fate. 

He wasn’t old – just in his mid-fifties. And he wasn’t suffering from any obvious prior condition, according to his widow.

As a scientist and a psychologist, I have tried to piece together Michael’s last months and find the real reason why the virus found him such an easy victim. What I found are lessons for us all. 

Up until February 2020, he lived what might pass – at least in the legal profession – for a normal life.

He was the managing partner of a small London firm. He had a large commercial law practice made up of mostly small to mid-sized businesses. 

He had a longstanding relationship with many of these. Michael worked hard, rarely taking a whole day off. 

He took calls from clients or team members until at least 10pm most nights (including weekends). 

In the years I knew him he thoroughly enjoyed what he did. 

I often told him to take it a bit easy; to let up, delegate a bit more, get to know his family a bit better. 

He would laugh off my advice. “I love my work”, he would say. “I love my clients. I appreciate that they depend on me.”

The truth was – as his occasional therapist told him – he suffered from anxiety, and probably depression. 

Work gave him a structure and the only respite from these two ‘black dogs’.


In March, the pandemic took a firm hold. The economy spiraled downward and Michael’s client base evaporated. 

He had to close the office and have everyone work from home. Zoom became his only contact with his team and those clients who still had ongoing matters.

“He just sat in front of the screen”, Jill – his wife of thirty years – told me. He watched the news obsessively and he frequently visited Facebook and other social media sites. 

One of the dangers of having a serious mood disorder (as more than 30 per cent of lawyers have) is when that which gives struc-ture to your life falls away, a number of things happen, both mentally and physically. 

The need to replace the original structure – and the adrenaline and dopamine (the two neurochemicals most associated with ad-diction) that went with it – means that the sufferer will turn to whatever’s available. 

Increasingly, that tends to be social media, cable and other news. 

Studies since 2004 have shown that these media sites are highly addictive and tend to attract people like Michael who have an untreated mood disorder – and time available.

As with cocaine, news and social media addiction can happen fast.

If your only community has been the office, Facebook, LinkedIn and other sites can give you a sense of ‘virtual community’ as well as diversion. 

A virtual community of Facebook ‘friends’ is not a real community and doesn’t provide real support for the sufferer. 

As with alcohol, the immediate reward quickly wears off leaving only the behavioural addiction. 

The addict becomes more depressed, anxious, lonely and ‘empty’ than they were before.

All mood disorders exact a toll on the effectiveness of the immune system. 

Recent research has shown that what psychologists call ‘Facebook depression’ strikes professionals particularly hard and can lead – like other form of depression – an affected person to suffer heart disease, cancer, diabetes and a range of other illnesses. 

The same thing can happen with news media and internet gaming addiction.

Michael, like other sufferers, found it increasingly difficult to concentrate on what work he had and to maintain effective contact with his firm and his team. 

Even while on Zoom calls with clients, he was looking at his smartphone for the latest newsflash or social media post.

“I can do both at once”, he told Jill. That’s a lie that is pervasive in our society. 

Research has firmly established that just having a smartphone within view, even if it’s switched off, can reduce the quality of any conversation by 25 per cent.

What’s more, humans are actually very bad at multitasking. 

We can’t do two things well at the same time, whether it’s homework and television or Facebook and clients. 

Our concentration on both will diminish and that which is least addictive will get the least attention.


Michael began to get a series of minor infections and what seemed to be a summer cold. 

None seemed to be serious enough for him to go to the doctor.

His ‘cold’ showed up as a persistent cough coupled with a minor sore throat and some nasal congestion.

The immediate cause was probably one of the 200 or so viruses which can cause what we call the ‘common cold’. 

However, the deeper problem was undoubtedly the subpar functioning of his immune system.

“I told him to call the doctor”, Jill said. “But he ignored my advice, saying it was ‘nothing.’”

In June, three weeks after the symptoms began, the cough and the sore throat were still there. 

Michael agreed to go and visit his doctor and ordered an Uber taxi to get there. 

The doctor insisted on a covid-19 test as a precaution, which later came back negative, and suggested he return in two weeks if he hadn’t improved.

A week later he began to get different symptoms – a persistent dry cough quite different from the original one, and increasingly troubled breathing.

Jill called an ambulance and got him to hospital. Fifteen days later he was dead.

The trip with an infected driver had given him the virus but, without the lowered immune system caused by his heightened mood disorder, the symptoms would probably have been much milder and he may have survived. 

In the future, with increasing remote working, we will all be in some danger from the forces that Michael faced. 

Depression and anxiety will certainly increase (as they were, long before covid-19), along with work and family stress. 

We will become increasingly glued to our screens; and the temptations of social media and 24/7 news will become greater.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) and other researchers have forecast more pandemics and lockdowns in the future as other viruses emerge. 

Several nasty ones are already cooking away in China and cases of the plague have been reported there and in the US.

We will need every bit of strength our immune systems can muster. 

If you’ve any history of depression or anxiety, you must follow a few simple rules: Eschew social media sites such as 

Get your news feed via radio or print media only.

Realise that you have a potential immunity problem and act accordingly. 

Keep in regular contact with friends through means such as Zoom, where you can at least see who you’re speaking to – your oxy-tocin level depends on it. 

Establish and stick to a routine that doesn’t include a screen but does include exercise. 

Realise that your most precious commodity is your support network. They are your immune boosters.  

Dr Bob Murray is a behavioural psychologist with an interest in legal and professional services. For the latest on human behaviour and wellness, and how these relate to leadership and strategy, sign up for Dr Murray’s weekly newsletter Today’s Research