Having friends is known to be good for our psychological well-being and overall health, but a new study suggests it might not just be offline relationships that contribute to good health. Online social networks can be beneficial - if we use them correctly, that is.
In our increasingly globalized world, more and more people are living away from their family and birthplace. This sometimes leads to the breaking of social ties and increasing feelings of loneliness and isolation.
The benefits of having close friends have been linked to longevity as early as the late 1970s. A 9-year long study then showed that people with no social and community ties were up to 2.8 times more likely to die prematurely than those with extensive social connections.
Since then, similar studies have been carried out bearing similar results.
In fact, a meta-analysis of over 148 studies revealed that strong social ties improve chances of survival by as much as 50%. The research also shows that loneliness is a mortality risk factor as significant as smoking and alcohol consumption.
Do online friendships help us live longer?
A new study suggests that using Facebook increases longevity. However, this is only the case when Facebook is used to maintain and improve real-life social connections, according to the authors.
The study looked at 12 million Facebook users and was led by University of California-San Diego researchers William Hobbs and James Fowler.
The findings confirm what has been known to be true for the offline world.
"Happily, for almost all Facebook users, what we found is [a correlation between] balanced use and a lower risk of mortality," says senior author James Fowler.
The number of Facebook "likes" has not been shown to affect longevity in any way.
The results of the study have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in which the researchers matched California Facebook users with vital records from the California Department of Public Health.
They studied people born between 1945 and 1989, and monitored their online activity over a period of 6 months. The researchers compared the activity of those still living with those who had died.
The first significant finding is that Facebook users live longer than those who are not online. In a given year, the average Facebook user is approximately 12% less likely to die than someone who does not use the networking site.
Users with average or large social networks - that is, in the top 50 to 30 percent - lived longer than those in the lowest 10%. This result is in line with previous studies of offline relationships and longevity.
Moderate levels of online activity linked with lowest mortality
The researchers also considered the number of friends, photos, status updates, wall posts, and messages sent to see if those who were more active lived longer. Offline social activity was considered to be higher if users posted more photos of face-to-face social activity.
The team found that Facebook users with the highest levels of offline social activity also have the highest longevity.
Moderate levels of online-only activity, such as writing posts and messages, were associated with the lowest levels of mortality.
"Interacting online seems to be healthy when the online activity is moderate and complements interactions offline. 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."
William Hobbes, lead author
The research also indicated that those who accepted the most friendship requests lived the longest.
This could mean that proactively seeking friendships is not necessarily beneficial to one's health. So public health initiatives prompting people to go out and make more friends might be misguided.
The researchers point out that their findings, while significant, are not enough for devising new policies or government recommendations. They also emphasize that their findings simply indicate a correlation and should not be interpreted as causation.
Hobbs and Fowler would like their study to inspire many other similar studies, so that eventually we have enough data to inform the population of new guidelines.
"What happens on Facebook and other social networks is very likely important," Fowler says. "But what we can't do at this time is give either individual or larger policy recommendations based on this first work."
Social isolation and social media
More and more people are living alone, and people across the globe report increasing feelings of loneliness.
In Great Britain, in 2014, 1 in 10 people reported not having a single close friend.
In the United States, according to a 2010 study carried out by the American Association of Retired Persons, 43% of Americans aged 45-49 reported feeling lonely on a regular basis.
Studies such as the one led by Hobbes and Fowler are important because they add the online medium to the wider picture of social isolation and the health benefits of social relationships.
This could mean that in the larger context of increasing isolation, social media, if used in moderation, can provide some much-needed comfort.