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Live long and ... Facebook?


Is social media good for you, or bad? Well, it's complicated. A study of twelve million Facebook users suggests that using Facebook is associated with living longer—when it serves to maintain and enhance your real-world social ties.

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The study, which the researchers emphasize is an association study and cannot identify causation, was led by UC San Diego researchers William Hobbs and James Fowler, collaborating with colleagues at Facebook and Yale. It is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The findings confirm what scientists at the UC San Diego Center for Healthy Aging have been preaching for a long time about the offline world: People who have stronger social networks age more successfully and live longer. But the new study documents that what happens online may matter also.

“Interacting online seems to be healthy when the online activity is moderate and complements interactions offline,” said Hobbs, who worked on the study as a UC San Diego doctoral student. “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.”

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 Facebook users in California with vital records from the state Department of Public Health. To preserve privacy, after being automatically matched on name and birthdate, the data was deidentified 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, they note, and might be because of social or economic differences between the user and nonuser groups.

Among people who do use Facebook, people with average or large social networks, in the top 50 percent to 30 percent, lived longer than those in the lowest 10 percent—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 faceto-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.

“The association between longevity and social networks was identified by Lisa Berkman in 1979 and has been replicated hundreds of times since,” said Fowler. “Social relationships seem to be as predictive of lifespan as smoking, and more predictive than obesity and physical inactivity. We’re adding to that conversation by showing that online relationships are associated with longevity, too.”

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