This is the final part (part 10) of a series reviewing selected papers from the top 100 most-discussed journal articles of 2016.
Friendships and other face-to-face social connections have repeatedly been associated with human longevity. This is because social integration is thought to assist improved health through motivating healthy behaviours, improving immunity, and reducing inflammation.
But what about online social networks? Online interaction with friends has been shown to lead to increased face-to-face social engagement, which is likely to have a positive relationship with health. However, time spent on social media may also reduce the time available for face-to-face social activity, resulting in unhealthy sedentary behaviour.
A recent study1 sought to explore the relationship between online social interaction and human health by referencing 12 million anonymised Facebook profiles against California public health records and analysing the data using longitudinal statistical models. The paper reporting the study is article #97 of the top 100 most-discussed journal articles of 2016.
The study found that:
- receiving friendship connection requests is associated with reduced mortality, but initiating friendship requests is not
- larger social media network size is associated with better health
- online behaviors that indicate face-to-face social activity, such as posting photos, are associated with reduced mortality
- online-only behaviors, such as sending messages, have a nonlinear relationship with reduced mortality, where moderate use is associated with the lowest mortality.
These results suggest that people who use online social media have lower mortality rates than those who don’t.
However, the researchers acknowledge a number of important limitations, including:
- most notably, the links between online social integration and health found by the study are associational rather than causal
- the results of the study may not be transferable because Facebook is a unique social media site, and online platforms are constantly changing
- the measures of mortality risk used in the study cover just a 2-year period for a single state in the United States, and different relationships might be found in studies with longer follow-up or in different states or countries.
The researchers state that although their research “is an associational study, it may be an important step in understanding how, on a global scale, online social networks might be adapted to improve modern populations’ social and physical health.”
- Hobbs, W. R., Burke, M., Christakis, N. A., & Fowler, J. H. (2016). Online social integration is associated with reduced mortality risk. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(46), 12980-12984. ↩
Also published on Medium.