Using Facebook may help you live longer, but only when it serves to maintain and enhance your real-world social ties, a new study of over 12 million social media users has found.
The research confirms what scientists have known for a long time about the offline world: People who have stronger social networks live longer. It documents for the first time that what happens online may matter too.
“Interacting online seems to be healthy when the online activity is moderate and complements interactions offline,” said William Hobbs, doctoral student at University of California San Diego at the time of the study.
“It is only on the extreme end, spending a lot of time online with little evidence of being connected to people otherwise, that we see a negative association,” said Hobbs, now a postdoctoral fellow at North Eastern University.
“Happily, for almost all Facebook users, what we found is balanced use and a lower risk of mortality,” said James Fowler, professor at UC San Diego.
The researchers matched California Facebook users with vital records from the California Department of Public Health. They studied counts of online activity over six months, comparing the activity of those still living to those who had died.
All of those studied were born between 1945 and 1989, and all the comparisons were made between people of similar age and gender.
The first finding is that those who are on Facebook live longer than those who are not. In a given year, an average Facebook user is about 12 per cent less likely to die than someone who does not use the site.
Among people who do use Facebook, the researchers looked at numbers of friends, numbers of photos and status updates, numbers of wall posts sent and messages sent, to see if people who were more active lived longer.
In these comparisons, they controlled their analysis not only for age and gender but also relationship status, length of time on Facebook, and smartphone use (a proxy for income).
People with average or large social networks, in the top 50 to 30 per cent, lived longer than those in the lowest 10 - a finding consistent with classic studies of offline relationships and longevity.
Those on Facebook with highest levels of offline social integration as measured by posting more photos, which suggests face-to-face social activity have the greatest longevity.
Online-only social interactions, like writing wall posts and messages, showed a nonlinear relationship: Moderate levels were associated with the lowest mortality.
Since the researchers were studying an online social network, they could also look at the direction of friendship requests.
It was Facebook users who accepted the most friendships who lived the longest. There was no observable relationship for those who initiated the most. The study appears in the journal PNAS.