Could Facebook be associated with living longer?

Social media has changed the way we communicate and engage with other people in profound ways. We’re more connected than ever, with relationships forming across time zones and countries. However, in some ways, we’re also more isolated than ever since much of our interactions take place in online spaces.

It’s unclear whether the internet and social media have a net positive or negative effect on our mental and physical well-being. Some research has associated prolonged social networking use with depression and low self-esteem, while other studies have presented an opposing perspective. [1]

But there was one study that emerged in 2016 that correlated Facebook use with longevity. [2] Is it possible – could using Facebook make us live longer?

Correlation of Facebook and longevity

The paper’s main assertion is that having an active social life online largely mirrors the positive effects of having an active social life offline. Maintaining healthy relationships with peers and friends through online social networks potentially makes us live longer – or at least, less likely to die.

This lines up with the belief that having strong social connections and healthy, positive relationships can actually help us live longer. Persons who live in isolation are 50% more likely to suffer premature deaths versus those who have active social lives. In fact, social isolation may carry a similar risk of mortality as other major diseases and factors, including smoking. [3]

Of course, this now leads to the question – are online friendships the same as face-to-face ones? 

The answer is largely “yes,” although there are certain caveats. In-person relationships tend to be more conscripted by certain factors, in particular proximity. But online relationships don’t have that restriction since you can connect with people in different cities or even countries.

Research has shown that online friendships tend to form around common interests or experiences. People want to connect with others who share the same hobbies and passions, or who reflect the same values and beliefs on social, cultural, and political issues. With social media making it even easier to find people who share these interests or hobbies, it’s become pretty simple to form an online social network.

This lines up with the belief that having strong social connections and healthy, positive relationships can actually help us live longer

We also feel more at ease sharing deeply personal anecdotes, since we’re less likely to feel “retroactive embarrassment.” We also feel less vulnerable since we can share these “confessions” in a contained space while curating the information we give. This can lead to genuine connections forming despite the “distance” that an online space provides. [4]

This leads us back to the Facebook study, which its researchers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). It based its findings on 12 million Facebook profiles as well as records from the California Department of Health. [5]

In its results, the study associated “moderate use of Facebook” with a lowered mortality rate. People with average to large social networks lived longer than their counterparts with smaller social networks. The paper related “social networks” as Facebook users who accept more friend requests.

Additionally, online actions that mimic face-to-face activity – such as posting photos – have a positive correlation with reduced mortality. Online-only behaviours had “nonlinear relationships” but showed that moderate use correlated with the lowest mortality.

This comparison is between Facebook users and the general population.

Limitations and evidence

The study, however, is largely associational. It leaves open the question of whether online social interactions and integration can have the same positive effect that face-to-face interactions can have on our overall physical and mental health.

There’s also the balance of online and offline social engagements. Using online socialising to augment offline socialising can allow people to engage in healthy behaviours, leading to a positive association between online networking and personal well-being. However, overuse of online social networks can reduce the time available for offline socialising, which then leads to more detrimental effects.

Using online socialising to augment offline socialising can allow people to engage in healthy behaviours, leading to a positive association between online networking and personal well-being

The study attempted to control these factors using several indicators to measure 6 months of online social activity from 12 million users, and followed up within 2 years to assess whether the data correlated with a lower risk of mortality. They also measured mortality rates for Facebook users versus the general population while controlling for age, gender, and ethnicity.

Their research then disaggregated the comparisons by cause of death. There were no significant differences between the two groups in terms of mortality due to conditions such as cancers, suicides, and STDs. However, there was a positive correlation between Facebook use and lower mortality due to diabetes, mental disorders, ischemic heart disease, and liver disease.

Still, this is largely observational research and mostly a correlation instead of causation. The results may suggest that online social media users experience a decreased risk of mortality versus those who remain offline, but there are many other factors to control.

Social media and longevity

The study asserts that people with larger online social networks live longer – or are less likely to die – than people who are disconnected. This is contradictory to the popular belief that social media is actually (on the balance) detrimental to our health. 

Essentially – online social connections are just as beneficial to our health as offline ones.

It’s clear this still needs further study, but at a time when social media use is so prevalent, there’s an incentive to research this link between social networking sites and longevity. Friendships and healthy social interactions positively influence our health. And if this includes online connections, then we may be opening ourselves to yet another means of increasing our longevity – so accept that friend request today.

REFERENCES

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4183915/
[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/01/science/facebook-longer-life.html#
[3] https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/hsph-in-the-news/active-social-life-longevity/
[4] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/lifetime-connections/202005/
Do-online-friendships-differ-face-face-friendships
[5] https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1605554113

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