Do the ben­e­fits of real friend­ships trans­late on­line?

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

NEW YORK: A per­son’s Face­book ac­tiv­ity might be a win­dow into their health and even pre­dict their odds of dy­ing in the short term, a new study sug­gests. Re­searchers stop short of say­ing that us­ing the so­cial net­work­ing web­site will either has­ten or de­lay ill­ness or death, but they con­clude that how a per­son in­ter­acts on the site might say a lot about their level of risk. “We can’t say us­ing Face­book is good for you, but I think the study pro­vides ev­i­dence that it’s prob­a­bly not bad for you,” said James Fowler, the study’s se­nior au­thor, from the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, San Diego.

Past stud­ies have found that peo­ple with more friends and so­cial ties in their com­mu­nity tend to live longer, Fowler and his coau­thors, which in­clude a rep­re­sen­ta­tive from Face­book, write in the Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tional Academy of Sciences. So­cial con­nec­tions may pro­mote healthy be­hav­iors, im­prove im­mu­nity and re­duce in­flam­ma­tion, the re­search team writes. But past stud­ies fo­cused on real-life in­ter­ac­tions, and it’s been less clear if the same was true for on­line so­cial con­nec­tions.

For the new study, the re­searchers used anonymized data on about 12 mil­lion Face­book users liv­ing in Cal­i­for­nia. All joined the site be­fore Oc­to­ber 2010 and were in their 20s through 60s dur­ing the first six months of 2011, the pe­riod of Face­book ac­tiv­ity the re­searchers an­a­lyzed.

The study team tracked deaths and causes of death in the next cou­ple of years by match­ing sub­jects to Cal­i­for­nia De­part­ment of Pub­lic Health records of deaths in 2012 and 2013. In one anal­y­sis, the re­searchers looked at mor­tal­ity rates among Face­book users and 89,597 non-users matched from Cal­i­for­nia voter records and found that Face­book users were 12 per­cent less likely to die dur­ing that time. For their other analy­ses, re­searchers fo­cused solely on Face­book users and an­a­lyzed on­line ac­tiv­i­ties like send­ing and ac­cept­ing “friend re­quests,” post­ing pho­tos and “lik­ing” other peo­ple’s up­dates.

Peo­ple who were pop­u­lar and ac­cepted the most friend re­quests were about 34 per­cent less likely to die than those who ac­cepted the fewest re­quests. There was no ben­e­fit in send­ing the most friend re­quests, though. That re­sult is a bit dis­ap­point­ing since it sug­gests seek­ing out new friend­ships may not lead to health ben­e­fits, Fowler told Reuters Health. The types of ac­tiv­i­ties that did or did not seem to come with a lower risk of dy­ing were telling, the re­searchers write, be­cause the ones tied to a ben­e­fit seemed to point to an ac­tive so­cial life off­line. They found that peo­ple who posted the most pho­tos and the fewest “sta­tus up­dates” were about 30 per­cent less likely to die over the study pe­riod than the av­er­age Face­book user, for ex­am­ple.

Know­ing the signs

But there was no de­creased risk of death for those with the most on­li­neonly ac­tiv­i­ties, such as writ­ing wall posts or mes­sages. “We didn’t see any re­la­tion­ship be­tween Face­book ‘likes’ and health,” said lead au­thor Wil­liam Hobbs, of North­east­ern Univer­sity in Bos­ton. The find­ings sug­gest real-life in­ter­ac­tions drive any pos­si­ble de­crease in a per­son’s risk of death, ac­cord­ing to the re­searchers. Their anal­y­sis sug­gests the low­est risk of death was among peo­ple tagged in the most Face­book pho­tos and those who en­gage on the web­site a moder­ate amount. Know­ing the signs of healthy be­hav­ior or risk might lead to ways of us­ing Face­book to iden­tify peo­ple at risk and pro­mote healthy in­ter­ven­tions, ac­cord­ing to Fowler. For in­stance, know­ing that cer­tain ac­tiv­i­ties on Face­book are tied to an in­creased risk of death from causes like sui­cide or heart dis­ease can help re­searchers de­sign pro­grams that will flag the risk and al­low a user’s friends to in­ter­vene, he said. “Th­ese are re­ally in­ex­pen­sive in­ter­ven­tions that can reach hun­dreds, thou­sands and pos­si­bly even mil­lions of peo­ple,” said Dr Michael Thase, a pro­fes­sor of psy­chi­a­try at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia Perel­man School of Medicine in Philadel­phia. Sim­i­lar pro­grams could pos­si­bly be run through other so­cial me­dia, too, said Thase, who wasn’t in­volved with the new study. “The mon­i­tor­ing func­tion that’s pos­si­ble with so­cial me­dia-to know risks-is a good thing,” he told Reuters Health.

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