Researchers have long known that maintaining strong friendships and other relationships can lead to longer, healthier lives. They know far less about the effects of online social networks, which increasingly make up more and more of our everyday existence. Does time spent surfing Facebook—like watching television—tend to replace healthy activities in the real world? Or does it usually reflect and strengthen those life-prolonging social bonds?
Researchers have taken an initial stab at quantifying the health effects of social network use in a large-scale study of more than 12 million users, published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. By comparing Facebook users to non-users, they come to a provocative conclusion: Facebook users may actually live longer than non-users. But before you start a blizzard of friend requests and photo posts, read on.
The study found that in any given year, the average Facebook user was 12 percent less likely to die than someone who didn't use Facebook at all. But even the researchers, two of which have ties to Facebook, caution readers to be skeptical of this particular finding. “It is important not to read too much into the comparison between Facebook users and nonusers because many factors may confound the apparent association between being a Facebook user and experiencing lower mortality,” they write, adding:
This is an observational result, and we have few socioeconomic controls because we do not have much information about nonusers. We cannot rule out the possibility that some seriously ill individuals signed up for Facebook to update friends on their condition or that Facebook might attract healthier individuals for reasons unrelated to their social connectedness.
Past research attempting to draw insights into people’s lives from their Facebook use have been mixed. A 2013 study that relied on repeatedly surveying fewer than 100 Facebook users via text message showed that Facebook use undermined users' sense of well-being, rather than enhancing it. Other research has suggested that when people lie on Facebook to enhance their social status, they actually create false memories in their own brains. Social media also appears to either alleviate stress or enhance it, depending on the user and situation.
However, the new study does suggest it's possible that online social networks like Facebook serve as tools to enhance real-world social ties. And real world social ties are definitely good for your health. Since the late 1970s, a large and growing pile of research has shown that people with better social networks and more friends tend to live longer than loners. After all, friends and relationships give us something to live for.
“We didn't know if the association between social ties and longevity applied online too,” says William Hobbs, a political and network scientist at Northeastern University and co-author of the study. “It's possible that you could have a lot of Facebook friends and that could be totally unrelated to health. But we found that these friendships that are maintained online, that probably enhance real world social ties, those are related to better health.” Hobbs was a research intern at Facebook in 2013.
Along with Hobbs, the study was co-authored by Moira Burke, currently a data scientist at Facebook. Burke, who uses computer science and social psychology to help understand how people connect with Facebook in order to improve their experience with the site, says the media company’s involvement in the study was driven by hopes “to better understand the use of Facebook for social support during periods of illness and crisis.”
She adds that, “Facebook regularly collaborates with experts and academics outside the company to better understand how people are connecting online.”
For the study, Hobbs, Burke and coauthors at the Yale Institute for Network Science and the University of California, San Diego's School of Medicine harnessed the enormous scope of the social media platform. They matched 12 million California-based Facebook users with their vital records from the state's Department of Public Health, categorizing users into groups by factors like age and gender. After de-identifying and aggregating the data for privacy, they followed the online activity of users during a six-month period. Finally, the researchers followed up with users after two years to find out if there were any associations with decreased mortality rates.
When they compared the most active Facebook users to the least active, they found that the top 50 to 30 percent of users lived longer than those in the lowest 10 percent. However, this association with longevity only held when the active users were engaging in real life, face-to-face social activity. Researchers determined who had busy real-life social lives based on signifiers like the number of photos they posted or tagged, which in their past research had been linked to real world relationships.
On the other hand, users in the study who favored more passive, online-only Facebook actions—like writing wall posts or “likes”—didn't show the same correlation with benefit to longevity. For them, moderate levels of Facebook use correlated with lowest mortality.
Moderation may be a good rule of thumb for social network use in general, says Dhiraj Murthy, a journalism and sociology resarcher at the Unviversity of Texas at Austin who was not involved in the study. “Humans benefit from social interactions online in moderation," he says. "This is not something specific per se to Facebook, but healthy, moderate online social communication itself—Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp, etc. Extreme levels of social media use or full deprivation, without regular face-to-face social interaction, would be expected to have negative outcomes for most people.”
Lee Rainie, who directs internet, science and technology research at the Pew Research Center, and was also not involved, says the study's overall findings make sense. Rainie’s group authored a 2011 report that concluded that Facebook users have more close relationships and get more social support than others.
“There is a lot of evidence in (UCSD co-author James Fowler’s) previous studies and others that people with big, diverse networks get a bunch of benefits from those networks, compared with others who have smaller and less supportive networks,” Rainie says. “That includes some health benefits as well as emotional and financial benefits. So, it would make sense that people who use social networking platforms to deepen their existing relationships would get a boost.”
The researchers identified active Facebook users by their friend counts, photo posts, frequency of status updates, messages sent and other metrics. They categorized them not only by age and gender but also by relationship status, length of time using Facebook and smart phone use—which researchers used, interestingly, as a proxy for income.
This trove of online data allowed researchers to make one more fascinating insight: Not all Facebook friends are created equal. See, in the real world, you can track the number of friendships a person has—but not who initiated the friendship. On Facebook, you can see who requested a friendship and who simply accepted that request. When they looked at the differences between those who sought out friends and those who were in high demand, researchers found that receiving friend requests was associated with longevity, but requesting friends was not.
“That's a bit disappointing, because it means that encouraging people to go out and form new friendships might not lead to better health,” says Hobbs. Of course, making new friends is still a good idea. Even if they don't make your life longer, they'll probably make it more fun along the way.