It’s fun to criticize social media for its many, manifest absurdities, and helpful to highlight is negative impacts. Lord knows, I’ve done plenty of both here — but it also has lots of positive qualities, including some you might not expect.
Here’s one surprising one: Facebook use is associated with longer lifespans, according to a new study of 12 million people, including Facebook users and non-users, by researchers at the University of California at San Diego.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, matched public-health records from California with data from Facebook profiles for individual users, including how frequently they used Facebook and the size of their social networks. It compared these with a control group of individuals who didn’t use Facebook at all. All the individuals included in the study were born between 1945 and 1989.
The analysis showed that, on average, Facebook users were 12% less likely to die in any given year than non-users of the same age and gender. Further, comparing Facebook users with differently sized online social networks, those with large or average social networks (classified as falling in the top 50% or 30%) also lived longer, on average, than those with small social networks (the bottom 10%).
However, it’s not necessarily just online connections that make the difference. The study also found that greater longevity is particularly associated with online activities that reflect offline, face-to-face connections, like posting lots of photos. Social media use may contribute to longevity in part by enabling increased “real-world” interaction.
As always with these studies, it’s worth noting that correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation.
For example, people from lower-income backgrounds (which have previously been linked to shorter lifespans) or individuals with preexisting health problems might be less likely to use the Internet or join Facebook in the first place. Conversely, people in good health might be viewed as more attractive by their peers, resulting in bigger online social networks as well as more active social lives overall.
By the same token, a large body of research has shown that social activity is causally linked to greater longevity and maintenance of cognitive abilities among older adults, and this connection seems to be true of online socializing as well.
In August, I wrote about a study which showed a causal connection between social media and improved health, as online connections helped reduce feelings of loneliness, a contributing factor for many age-related maladies. The study followed 591 seniors with an average age of 68 who participated in the national Health and Retirement Study, which comparing one group who used a variety of digital communications technology — including social media Web sites, email, online video and phone calls, and online chat — with a control group who did not.
Over the course of the study period, the former group showed lower rates of chronic disease, including diabetes and hypertension, as well as fewer symptoms of mental health issues, including depression.
Similarly, a 2014 a British study found that nursing-home residents who received social media training showed an improvement in cognition, as well as increased confidence in their own ability to handle day-to-day tasks. That's compared to a control group which didn’t receive social media training.
The seniors in the study group also displayed a stronger sense of personal identity and reported feeling less lonely, lessening the risk of depression, a major factor in mental and physical decline associated with aging.