It is generally thought that spending time on social media is not very good for us – mostly because it’s a sedentary occupation, and countless studies have shown that we don’t get as much exercise as we should to keep us healthy.

Indeed, according to the World Health Organization, physical inactivity is the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality, causing an estimated 3.2 million deaths worldwide.

But social media may not be as bad for us as we thought. Some scientists are now claiming that being on Facebook could even be good for us. So good, in fact, that it could help us live longer.

“People who have stronger social networks live longer, and now it appears that this is true when the interaction takes place online,” says the study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

The study compared 12 million Facebook profiles against the state of California’s Department of Public Health vital records, and found that, in any given year, someone who uses Facebook is about 12% less likely to die than someone who doesn’t.

Making friends

Some activities on Facebook were healthier than others, though. Those that accepted friendship requests had a lower risk of mortality. Those that initiated those friendships, i.e. sent out the friendship request in the first place, didn’t show the same reduction in risk.

The sorts of online behaviours that show a link to the outside world, such as sharing photographs and writing wall posts, are associated with reduced mortality. However, online-only behaviours, such as sending messages, don’t share the same link.

The overall size of the person’s network is also associated with better health.

One of the reasons behind the findings might well be that being on Facebook encourages us to go out and participate in social activity.

“Many researchers have shown that online access to friends promotes real-world social activities. This finding suggests that online social media may increase the amount of overall social integration. To the extent that people use social media to coordinate and engage in healthy face-to-face social behaviour, we might therefore expect a positive relationship between online use and health,” said the report, explaining why the authors had decided to study this aspect of social media.

In addition, being on Facebook might give people greater support and encouragement to maintain a healthier lifestyle, says the report.

Conflict of interest

The authors of the study admitted to a conflict of interest – some of them had links with Facebook – but told the New York Times that: “We had some things in writing that they (Facebook) couldn’t interfere with the publication of the research no matter what the result was.”

It’s not all good news for Facebook lovers, though. Benefits were only seen from moderate use, rather than prolonged interaction with the site. “Mortality risk is lowest for those with high levels of offline social interaction and moderate levels of online social interaction.

“We hope this study plays a role in spurring interest in online social effects on health,” concludes the report.