Like or Unlike? Facebook May Harm Health

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After a long week, if there's not much on TV, you may spend some time on Facebook. Could this decision hurt your health?

A new study suggests it might, though the answer is complicated. Researchers found that "liking" people's posts and clicking links posted by friends was associated with worse reports of mental health, physical health and life satisfaction.

The new findings suggest there is likely some level of "social media activity and communication over social networking sites [that] is beneficial, but too much probably gets you in trouble," said Thomas Valente, a professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California who was not involved with the study. [Top 10 Golden Rules of Facebook]

The "sweet spot" for any person's social media use may depend on many factors, including personal traits like age, said Valente, who studies health-promotion programs but was not involved in the new study.

"I really applaud these authors for doing this work, [but] there's a lot of work [yet] to be done trying to understand the effects of social networking sites specifically and social media in general,” Valente told Live Science.

What's not to "like"?

In the new study, Holly Shakya, an assistant professor of global health at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine, and her collaborator Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis, director of the Human Nature Lab at Yale University,analyzed data from about 5,200 people with an average age of 48 over three time periods. The study participants rated their mental and physical health on a scale of 1 to 4 and life satisfaction on a scale of 1 to 10, and reported their body mass index (BMI) numbers. The participants also allowed the researchers to access to their Facebook data.

In addition to finding that people who gave out more "likes" had worse health, the researchers found that those who updated their Facebook status more often reported having worse mental health, on average, than those who updated their status less often.

Moreover, these links were shown to grow over time, suggesting both that people whose health is worse may turn to Facebook and that using Facebook may make things worse, the investigators said. The researchers also found that people with higher BMI may use Facebook more but not that Facebook leads to higher BMI, the scientists wrote in their study, which was published in January in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Mixed messages

People's social media use is a complex topic, and studies don't agree on whether too much Facebook is harmful.

One study, published last year in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture, found that people who show off their romantic relationships on Facebook were more likely to report that higher quality relationships. But this was the case only if their affection was authentic, the researchers said. In the study, relationship authenticity was measured using questions such as, “I share my deepest thoughts with my partner even if there’s a chance that he or she won’t understand them,” and “I’d rather think the best of my partner than to know the whole truth about him or her.” [8 Myths That Could Kill Your Relationship]

Another paper published last year showed that accepting more friendships on Facebook was associated with living longer, but initiating friendships didn't confer the same benefit. All told, the people in the study who engaged in moderate levels of online socializing and high levels of offline socializing fared the best, the researchers reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Valente also vouched for the potential of social media and social networks to help people improve their health. He pointed to communities for people affected by rare diseases as a particularly bright spot, because these groups can provide access to information and support that many people are unable to receive offline.

On the flip side, research has also linked spending lots of time on social media with increased risk of depression and eating disorders, and has shown that giving it up for a week may make people happier. Without conclusive evidence for or against Facebook's health-improving abilities, the best route for now is probably moderation and self-awareness, Valente said. He also emphasized the importance of knowing when to take a break and the value of in-person interactions.

Originally published on Live Science.

Live Science Contributor