By Thea Singer

News at Northeastern

BOSTON–Face­book as a foun­tain of youth? Well, not exactly. But new research co-led by Northeastern’s William R. Hobbs sug­gests that use of the social media plat­form is asso­ci­ated with longer life, par­tic­u­larly if the time spent online is mod­erate and the user’s online activ­i­ties reflect strong social inter­ac­tions in the offline world.

The find­ings sup­port decades of research showing that social rela­tion­ships in real life con­tribute to longevity and that social iso­la­tion does the oppo­site. They are the first, how­ever, to reveal that the asso­ci­a­tion holds in the online world.

Northeastern’s William R. Hobbs and colleagues suggest that Facebook use is associated with longer life, particularly if the time spent online is moderate and the user’s online activities reflect strong social interactions in the offline world. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University
Northeastern’s William R. Hobbs and colleagues suggest that Facebook use is associated with longer life, particularly if the time spent online is moderate and the user’s online activities reflect strong social interactions in the offline world. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Hobbs, a post­doc­toral research fellow in the lab of Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Polit­ical Sci­ence and Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence David Lazer, is quick to point out that the study shows asso­ci­a­tions only and not cause and effect. Still, he sug­gests a pos­sible expla­na­tion for the results.

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,” says Hobbs, who con­ducted the research while a grad­uate stu­dent at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­fornia, San Diego.

Most Face­book users engaged in mod­erate levels of online inter­ac­tions. How­ever, when num­bers of online inter­ac­tions were extreme, and when we didn’t see evi­dence of users being to con­nected to people offline, we saw asso­ci­a­tions with worse health.”

The research, co-led by UC San Diego pro­fessor James Fowler, was pub­lished Monday in the journal PNAS.

“You’ve got to have friends”

For the study, the researchers mea­sured the Face­book activity of 12 mil­lion California-based Face­book users for six months in 2011 and com­pared the pro­files against Cal­i­fornia Depart­ment of Public Health vital records for 2012 and 2013 to deter­mine mor­tality status and cause of death. They mea­sured number of friends, photos, status updates, and mes­sages and friend requests sent. The users were all born between 1945 and 1989, and each was com­pared only with users of the same age and gender. For the analysis itself, to pre­serve pri­vacy, the data was aggre­gated and “de-identified,” that is, all ele­ments that asso­ci­ated the data with an indi­vidual were removed.

Before exam­ining the users’ behavior, the team wanted to know how the users com­pared to the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion. To cut down on bias, the researchers turned to a more homo­ge­neous subgroup—users and nonusers on the Cal­i­fornia voter rolls.

There they found that the risk of dying in a given year was about 12 per­cent less for users than nonusers. In the paper, how­ever, they cau­tion “not to read too much into the com­par­ison,” because they couldn’t con­trol for myriad con­founding factors—such as mar­ital status and education—given that they knew so little about the nonusers.

Com­paring the users to one another was another story. For them they could con­trol not only for age and gender but also for mar­ital status, length of time on Face­book, and smart­phone use (a proxy for income).

The results were telling but not sur­prising, given the his­tor­ical evi­dence regarding the health ben­e­fits of social rela­tion­ships. Users with large or average social net­works, in the top 30 to 50 per­cent, lived longer than those in the lowest 10 per­cent, according to Hobbs.

The researchers were par­tic­u­larly sur­prised that ini­ti­ating friend­ships did not cor­re­late with better health even though accepting them did. “You would think that the asso­ci­a­tion would go both ways,” he says. “That was a dis­ap­pointing finding because it sug­gests that telling people to go out and make more friends might not improve their health. On the other hand, it may be that people who live longer are more attrac­tive to other people in the first place.”

Lazer, who is also co-director of the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Net­works, sees the study as paving the way for new avenues of research regarding big data and health. “It is inno­v­a­tive to con­nect Face­book behav­iors to health and mor­tality out­comes,” he says. “The iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of these pat­terns will hope­fully spur fur­ther research on the nature of the rela­tion­ship between our social net­works and health-related outcomes.”

(Published with permission from News at Northeastern)

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