Studies praising the positive effects of social media on our health are few and far between, with the overwhelming opinion currently being that increased screen time and 24-hour connectivity, brings with it a whole barrage of concerns.
But a new research paper, published in journal PNAS, has asserted that in fact, social media sites like Facebook could actually be associated with a longer life.
Claiming that online communities mirror the effects of time spent face to face with our peers, the study suggests that a busy digital social life could reap the same benefits as an off-screen one.
Conducted by researchers in California, the study compared the health records and longevity of 12 million Facebook users with nonusers.
Perhaps surprisingly, the findings suggest that with moderate use, social networks can connect people in similar ways to the old fashioned form of socialising, and bring about some of the same benefits.
It’s well documented that a bigger social support network is linked with better health and longevity, perhaps, say researchers, because the more we socialise the more we likely we are to engage in healthy behaviours such as physical activity and mental or emotional unburdening (talking through our issues etc).
Using this as their cue, the authors behind the new study explored the ways in which we all interact online, finding that where behaviour simulates face to face interaction, the benefits are greater.
Those who tend to share photographs with their friends, for example, rather than simply using messaging functions, were linked to lower mortality rates. Similarly, those who accepted more friend requests than they sent out, also enjoyed lower mortality rates.
“Just like numerous past studies of real world social networks, we find that people with more friends online are less likely to die than their disconnected counterparts,” the report says.
“This evidence contradicts assertions that social media have had a net-negative impact on health. Both comparisons between users and nonusers and between low users and high users suggest that social media use is predictive of lower mortality.
“If social media use were extremely unhealthy, we would expect to find an overall positive relationship between use and mortality, but we do not.”
Despite the positive findings however, the authors of the paper are, for the moment at least, reluctant to use it to inform recommendations on social media use.
Talking to the New York Times, lead author William Hobbs, now a postdoctoral fellow at Northeastern University, Boston, said: “At this point, we’re not making any recommendations on how people should use social media.
“It’s good to have a long track record of finding these relationships again and again before we start giving recommendations.”