Logging too many hours online may negatively impact your health and happiness, but a new study finds that some Facebook users may be poised to live longer.
A team of researchers, led by University of California researchers William Hobbs and James Fowler, found that people who receive and accept the most friend requests lived longer. However, the same did not hold true for those sending the friend requests.
"People who are more popular live longer, but we can't say the same of people who are more social -- (those who reach out to others more)," said lead author Will Hobbs, a postdoctoral researcher at Northeastern University.
"We've known for a long time that people with stronger social connections in real life live longer," Hobbs said. "We live in a new reality where many of our social interactions now take place online. We wanted to find out if the same rules apply online."
To find out, the researchers worked with Facebook and honed in on 12 million users from California (all born between 1945 and 1989). They matched them to California Department of Public Health vital records, and ultimately ended up with a sample of more than 4 million people.
Lower mortality rate for Facebook users
After comparing the past Facebook activity of those who had died with the activity of other California users, the authors found that individuals who didn’t use Facebook were 12% more likely to die each year. (A crude number which the researchers say could be influenced by other factors, including social and economic differences.)
Interestingly, the team found that the number of friend requests people sent had no bearing on their longevity. There was, however, a link between longevity and the number of friend requests accepted. People who received and accepted the most friend requests were 34% less likely to die compared to those who didn’t field as many friend requests.
"The mortality rate for users with the most accepted friendships was about 35 percent lower than those with the least accepted friendships, and those with even average to moderately large friend networks saw similarly low mortality rates compared to the most socially isolated users," Hobbs said.
Reason for association
In attempting to zero in on an explanation for the association, Hobbs and Fowler noted that more research is needed. A person’s popularity isn’t necessarily the main predictor of longevity; it could simply be that those who are more likely to live longer are more attractive to others in the first place.
But it’s clear that social relationships, when carried out offline, can have a positive impact on one’s health. Fowler cited a recent meta-analysis that showed that “social relationships seem to be as predictive of lifespan as smoking, and more predictive than obesity and physical inactivity.”
Hobbs and Fowler believe the same is likely true of online social relationships. They hope their associational study will set the stage for many follow-up studies on the topic of online social experiences and their link to health.