Living well Your Health & Wellness

Online social networks may extend your life

Written by Diane Archer

We have evidence that people who are more socially engaged live longer. New research featured in PNAS reveals that people with stronger online social networks also appear to live longer than people with small online social networks. Interestingly, whether you have more Facebook friends because you accept more invitations or because you invite more people to become your friend matters.

The researchers looked at more than 12 million Facebook profiles. They found an association between people who receive more invitations to be a friend online and longer life. They found no association between people who invite others to be their friends online and longer life. People who used Facebook in moderation were found to live longest.

The researchers also found an association between people whose posts revealed in-person social activity and longer life. This is not surprising, as there is substantial evidence showing that having friends or buddies leads to better health outcomes. Friends or buddies can provide mental, physical, emotional, social and psychological support that many people, particularly older adults living alone, do not have.

Other research has shown that people who connect with friends online are more likely to participate in in-person social activities. But, before this recent PNAS study of people with online social networks, it was not clear whether engaging with friends online was more like watching television and socially isolating, undermining health, or helped people to be more socially engaged.

It must be noted that finding an association between engaging online with friends and longer life is very different from finding that engaging online leads to or causes longer life. The researchers found only an association, not causation.

In its reporting on this research, The New York Times observed that two of the authors of the report had a relationship with Facebook that could have skewed their findings. It also pointed out that earlier research on Facebook’s bearing on individual health published in PLOS One found that young adults who used Facebook more in a two-week time span said that they were less happy than people who used it less.

NB: Studies show that social isolation can be as damaging to your health as smoking. Indeed, social isolation is more likely to lead to an early death than lack of exercise and obesity.

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