People love social media because it’s a way to keep up with everything that is going on in real time. Now, a new Facebook study of 12 million Facebook users suggests that using Facebook is associated with living longer – when it serves to maintain and enhance your real-world social ties.
The study was led by University of California San Diego researchers William Hobbs and James Fowler, collaborating with colleagues at Facebook and Yale. It is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The research confirms what scientists have known for a long time about the offline world: People who have stronger social networks live longer. And it documents for the first time that what happens online may matter also.
“Interacting online seems to be healthy when the online activity is moderate and complements interactions offline,” said first author 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.”
Senior author James Fowler, professor of political science in the UC San Diego Division of Social Sciences and of global public health in the UC San Diego School of Medicine, said, “Happily, for almost all Facebook users, what we found is balanced use and a lower risk of mortality.”
The researchers matched California Facebook users with vital records from the California Department of Public Health. To preserve privacy, after being automatically matched on name and birthdate, the data was de-identified and aggregated. All analyses were performed on the aggregate data, and all data was observational.
The researchers 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, the average Facebook user is about 12 percent less likely to die than someone who doesn’t use the site. But that’s the researchers’ crudest measure, may be due to social or economic differences between the user and non-user groups.
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, the length of time on Facebook, and smartphone use (a proxy for income).