Surprising connection found between online “friends” and longevity

If you’re reading today’s Dispatch on a screen, don’t be alarmed by the striking statistics on increased mortality associated with watching TV from yesterday’s Dispatch. I suspect the TV-death mortality statistics relate to the unhealthy behaviors that happen while watching TV…as well as the healthy behaviors that don’t happen while you’re in front of the tube.

But don’t despair. New research links spending more time social networking on the computer with longer life.

This finding makes sense to me. As I often report, many studies link stronger social ties with increased human longevity. And thanks to the internet, social interactions are increasingly moving to the online world, and around the world, instantly.

Spending more time online could add years to your life…up to a point

For this new study, researchers looked at longitudinal statistical models of 12 million social media profiles. To be more specific, they matched California Facebook users with vital records from the California Department of Public Health. (In my recent experience, this state government agency takes weeks to issue data that typically takes days in well-run states. But I suppose the researchers had the time.)

Next, they measured online activity over six months and observed the online activity of the survivors. In any given year, the average Facebook user was about 14 percent less likely to die compared to a non-user.

Also, people with larger social networks (top 30 to 50 percent) lived longer than those with smaller social networks (bottom 10 percent). Facebook users with the highest levels of offline social integration (measured by those posting photos on Facebook) also had greater longevity.

When it comes to friends, those who accepted more friendship requests had higher longevity. But there was no observable boost for those who initiated more requests.

(I think this finding may have been confounded by the large number of high-volume scammers requesting friendships.)

Overall, these findings show that people with strong online social networks, as well as strong offline social networks, have increased longevity. Online social interactions appear to be healthy when done in moderation, leaving enough time for personal social interactions.

These findings are certainly intriguing. But I think in this instance, we do actually need more research to understand the benefits — and limits — of this kind of social interaction.

For example, when taken to an extreme, spending more and more time online leaves little time or opportunity for offline connections with the real world. And this extreme behavior shows a negative association with longevity.

Though, again, active engagement with others on a computer screen would certainly appear to affect the mind (and even the body) differently than passively sitting in front of a TV screen, consuming mass media.

I am reminded of a popular science-fiction television show of the mid-1960s. It began each week: “Do not adjust the vertical. Do not adjust the horizontal. We are in control…You have now entered the ‘Outer Limits.’” I remember my mother went into labor, while we were all watching this show, for the birth of my youngest sibling. We sometimes thought that explained a lot over the years.

But in any case, “stay tuned.”


  1. “Online social interaction is associated with reduced mortality risk,” Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2016 Nov 15;113(46):12980-12984