Pop quiz: Is Facebook good or bad for your health?
We'll forgive you if you answered “bad,” because of everything that has been written about the jealousy and envy it can cause, the marriages it has wrecked, not to mention the anxiety it seems to foster around election time. And of course, time spent clicking little hearts and thumbs on your friends' posts is time not spent on the treadmill or researching that cancer cure.
But a new study out of Northwestern University suggests that not only is Facebook not the life-sucking mother of all time-wastes you suspected it was, it might actually help prolong your life.
Now, decades of research pre-dating Zuckerberg's Frankenstein has shown that social relationships in real life have a positive effect on longevity. Social isolationism, likewise, has the opposite effect. What scientists did not know is whether the online version of social interaction has a comparable effects.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, matched 12 million Facebook users up against California Department of Public Health records as well as the voter registration database to find a link with longevity over a two-year period. The researchers factored number of friends, photos, status updates, and messages and friend requests sent into their calculations.
“We find that people with more friends online are less likely to die than their disconnected counterparts. This evidence contradicts assertions that social media have had a net-negative impact on health,” the authors wrote.
Of course, the study only shows association, and not cause-and-effect. But the authors think they have that covered as well:
“Given the very strong association between real-world interactions and better health, it could be that the more you have moderate interactions online, the more likely you are to be friends with your Facebook friends offline as well, reinforcing the relationships,” they explained.
The researchers needed to create some conventions in order to break the data out into the sort of meaningful demographics the study merited. For example, smartphone use became a proxy for income.
One datum that made the team go “hmmmm” was that initiating friend requests did not correlate with better health even though accepting them did. This was a disappointing finding, as the scientists has hoped there would be a takeaway that encouraged people to make more friends. Instead, they concluded that people who are more attractive to other people will live longer.