In studies of longevity, people who live long lives typically have a strong community of friends and family. This fact has become an important piece of the longer, healthier life puzzle. Studies continually show that having friends keeps us happier and healthier and for longer.
Researchers at University of California San Diego wanted to know if the same benefits could be seen when that community was a digital one. Does engaging with friends and family on Facebook add to your longevity like it does when you engage in real life? A new study suggests that yes, it does.
A paper published in the journal PNAS states that an active social media life has similar health effects as an active social life.
“We find that people with more friends online are less likely to die than their disconnected counterparts,” the paper says. “This evidence contradicts assertions that social media have had a net-negative impact on health.”
The study looked at 12 million California Facebook users along with vital records from the California Department of Health. They studied users' activity on Facebook over the past six months and compared the activity of those who had died and those that were still alive in the same age groups. All people studied were born between 1945 and 1989.
The study found a correlation between Facebook use and a longer life. The Facebook users with the most friends, the top 50 to 30 percent, lived longer than those in the lowest 10 percent, which is consistent with studies of offline social networks. It also found that the more friend requests a person accepted the longer they lived, but the number of friend requests sent out didn't make a difference.
That could mean that a healthier person is more desirable as a friend as opposed to meaning that being popular makes you live longer.
The study also found that Facebook users with a strong offline social life as evidenced by greater posting of photos was linked to living longer. All of the findings seem to suggest that a moderate and balanced use of social media has health benefits, but not at the exclusion of offline interactions.
“Interacting online seems to be healthy when the online activity is moderate and complements interactions offline,” said William Hobbs, who worked on the study as a UC San Diego doctoral student in political science and is now a postdoctoral fellow at Northeastern University. “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.”
It's important to note that this is an associational study and not a causation study. It is also noteworthy that Moira Burke, one of the paper's authors, is a research scientist at Facebook.
Using Facebook will not cause you to live longer, but it does suggest that an active social life both digital and in real life is part of a healthy lifestyle. It could simply be that people who have a strong community of family and friends also engage with them online, but either way we can add it to the list of studies that say being a part of a community is good for our health.