Facebook possibly associated with greater longevity; good news or wishful thinking?

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As our social lives have moved onto social media networks like Facebook over the past decade, there’s been a lot of research conducted and ensuing debate over what affect all that screen time might have on our health. But according to a new study, time spent on social media could be associated with a longer life.

According to a new study, time spent on @Facebook could be associated with a #longerlife Click To Tweet

The paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Oct. 31, asserts that the health effects of active online social lives largely mirror the benefits of busy offline social lives (pdf), according to The New York Times.

“We find that people with more friends online are less likely to die than their disconnected counterparts,” the paper says. “This evidence contradicts assertions that social media have had a net-negative impact on health.”

The study’s methods are detailed at length in the paper, and it was approved by three university and state review boards. But skeptics will note that Facebook itself was closely involved with the paper.

William Hobbs, 29, a postdoctoral fellow at Northeastern University, worked at Facebook as a research intern in 2013. Another of the paper’s authors, Moira Burke, worked on it in her capacity as a research scientist at Facebook.

Mr. Hobbs, who conducted the research while he was a doctoral student at the University of California, San Diego, said Facebook had not interfered with the results of the paper.

“We had some things in writing that they couldn’t interfere with the publication of the research no matter what the result was,” he said. He noted, though, that some at the company had been “pretty confident that we were going to find this result.”

A news release sent by a spokeswoman at the University of California, San Diego, drives the point home.

“The research confirms what scientists have known for a long time about the offline world: People who have stronger social networks live longer,” the release said.

The study was based on 12 million social media profiles made available to the researchers by Facebook, as well as records from the California Department of Health.

Mr. Hobbs and the paper’s other authors matched records from California’s Department of Public Health with those of California Facebook users, preserving privacy by aggregating the data before analyzing it, the release said. All of the subjects of the study were born from 1945 to 1989.

Those on Facebook with the highest levels of offline social integration–as measured by posting more photos, which suggests face-to-face social activity–had the greatest longevity, according to the Daily Mail.

People with average or large social networks, in the top 50% to 30%, lived longer than those in the lowest 10%–a finding consistent with classic studies of offline relationships and longevity.

“The association between longevity and social networks was identified by Lisa Berkman in 1979 and has been replicated hundreds of times since,” said James Fowler, a professor of public health and political science at the University of California, San Diego, and another of the paper’s authors. “In fact, a recent meta-analysis suggests the connection may be very strong. Social relationships seem to be as predictive of lifespan as smoking, and more predictive than obesity and physical inactivity. We’re adding to that conversation by showing that online relationships are associated with longevity, too.”

The researchers hope subsequent research leads to a better understanding of what kinds of online social experiences are protective of health.

“What happens on Facebook and other social networks is very likely important,” Professor Fowler said. “But what we can’t do at this time is give either individual or larger policy recommendations based on this first work.”

The paper itself acknowledges the study’s “many limitations,” saying that Facebook is unique among social media websites and that its data might not be more broadly applicable. It also points out that its findings represent a correlative relationship as opposed to a causal one: There is no evidence in the paper that using Facebook has any direct effect on a person’s health.

The new result, Professor Fowler explained, suggested that researchers who had previously found that people with more friends were healthier might have misunderstood the relationship between sociability and health.

It may be, he said, that “the reason why people with more friends are healthier is because healthier people have more friends,” which would suggest that “it may be harder than we thought it was to use social networks to make people healthier.”

Nathan Jurgenson, a sociologist and a researcher for Snapchat, said that the paper provided much evidence against the idea that connections made online exist separately from the “real world,” as if the internet did not exist within the broader universe.

But he pointed out that the study itself, even in providing evidence to support the idea that the internet is not different from “real life,” used language that reinforced the binary view.

“All of the conceptual and linguistic back flips being done here in trying to explain that the virtual world interacts with the real world could be circumvented by instead taking for granted that digital connection is new and different but that it’s also part of this one social reality,” Mr.Jurgenson wrote.

Sociological research into Facebook’s effect on health and happiness has not always been as positive. A study published in the journal PLOS One three years ago found that over a two-week period, the more its subjects used Facebook, the worse they rated their own happiness.

“On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection,” that paper said. “Rather than enhancing well-being, however, these findings suggest that Facebook may undermine it.”

Professor Fowler said that he had been hounding Facebook to help participate in a health study like the one detailed in the paper since 2010, and that he had hoped its findings would directly inform the evolution of the platform, which he had envisioned as potential boon to public health.

He said his focus when he conceived of the study had been simple: “How can you design this platform to not only make people happier but to make them healthier?”

Mr. Hobbs said he welcomed the scrutiny of those who would note the paper’s close associations with Facebook, saying that the paper constituted a first step.

“At this point, we’re not making any recommendations on how people should use social media,” Mr. Hobbs said. “It’s good to have a long track record of finding these relationships again and again before we start giving recommendations.”

Steve’s Take: Time for some levity, what with the presidential campaign lurching ever closer to Nov. 8, but still managing to somehow get uglier each day.

So now there’s a study saying people who are well liked on Facebook may also be healthier. That means that Facebook fans now have a real excuse to spend even more of their waking hours on the addictive social medium. Correct?

As tennis icon John McEnroe is famous for saying, “You cannot be serious!” But this study is published in a highly-regarded scientific journal–not People Magazine or Us Weekly–that linked subjects’ activity on the social network to their lifespans.

It’s complicated and could be another blow against the increasingly unstable position that digital media is inherently dangerous, writes The Verve. But let’s take another look at the facts.

Led by William Hobbs–who at the time was a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego–the researchers found that Facebook activity that indicated a rich offline social life tracked with improved longevity. They published their results Monday, Oct. 31 in the prestigious journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Specifically, they found that people who received a lot of friend requests tended to live longer, but there was little association between longevity and sending friend requests.

Posting photos was also linked with reduced mortality in the study. And moderate levels of online-only behavior like sending messages also appears to track with a longer life. The study supports previous research that associated a robust, real-world social network with improved health.

But let’s look at some other facts.

The study covered just one state and one social network. And it looked at correlation, not causation.

“We cannot say that spurring users to post more photos on Facebook will increase user longevity,” the authors write in the paper.

In fact, it’s just as likely that the association goes the reverse direction: these findings could mean that healthier people have the energy and time for richer offline social lives that bleed into their online lives.

Now here’s the kicker.

Two of the authors have ties to Facebook, The New York Times points out. Lead author William Hobbs, now a postdoctoral fellow at Northeastern University, interned for the company in 2013. And Moira Burke, the second author of the study, is a Facebook research scientist.

But Hobbs told the Times, “We had some things in writing that they couldn’t interfere with the publication of the research no matter what the result was.”

Well I suppose these “things in writing” means there couldn’t possibly have been any influence brought to bear on the study results by the people with Facebook ties. Right? After all, “things in writing” are never, ever disobeyed.

I say, take the study results with a big grain of salt. Personally, I’m a bit surprised that the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published this one. Then again, if you want your readership to spike up?

What struck me, frankly, was the extent of the media coverage of this Facebook/longer-life study. It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen a not especially earth-shaking news piece like this one so widely covered around the world.

Here is a partial list of headlines just posted in a smattering of some of the languages my computer could interpret. Apologies for any grammatical or spelling mistakes.

Steve's Take: @Facebook is everywhere, even creeping into our scientific journals Click To Tweet

See what I mean? Facebook actually is everywhere. And it’s now crept into our scientific journals with “news” that if one uses that particular social network, she or he may live longer. Wouldn’t you either take up the grandfather of social media if you hadn’t already, or use it more if you’re already addicted? No comment.