Social butterflies live longer, healthier lives. 

Study after study has demonstrated a link between strong social connections and reduced mortality risk. But does that hold true as our social interactions increasingly take place in online spheres?

A new study out of Yale and the University of California suggests that it does.  

The study, published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that people who use Facebook live longer than those who do not, and that certain types of Facebook activities — like posting pictures and accepting friend requests — are associated with a lower risk of mortality.  

The findings offer a glimmer of hope in a world full of studies about how social media is making us more envious and less honest as it replaces deep bonds with shallow online friendships

"There's a big debate about online social media. There are people that worry it substitutes for healthy social interaction," co-author James Fowler, a social scientist from University of California, San Diego, told CBC News.

"But there's never really been a study before this one where we were able to match gold standard data about health outcomes to a large number of people who are actually engaged in social media usage."

Is Facebook healthy or do healthy people use Facebook? 

The researchers started with 12 million Facebook profiles, then narrowed it down to four million people whose identities could be verified through California's voter registration list. Then they used data from the California Department of Public Health to compare those people to voters who don't use the social networking platform. 

They found the risk of dying in a given year was 12 per cent lower for Facebook users than non-Facebook users.

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It's hard to say whether being on Facebook helps people live longer, or whether healthy people are more likely to be on Facebook. (Getty Images)

That doesn't mean Facebook is necessarily good for you, Fowler cautions. Correlation does not prove causation, so it's impossible to say whether being on Facebook makes you healthier, or whether healthy people are more likely to be on Facebook.

Still, Fowler said the study does help debunk some of the negative associations people have with social media.

"The fact that we found such a strong positive relationship between health and social networks speaks against the hypothesis that they're making us unhealthy in some way," he said.

It's better when friends find you

Dig a little deeper, and only certain types of Facebook activity were linked to a longer life.

For example, Facebook actions tied to real-world activities, like posting and getting tagged in pictures, were more associated with reduced mortality risk than online-only activities, like posting status updates and sending messages. 

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Using Facebook to share and tag pictures is more associated with positive health incomes than just posting status updates and messaging people. (Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters)

What's more, having a lot of friends doesn't matter if you're the one seeking them out. 

While the mortality rate for users who accepted the most friend requests was about 66 per cent of the rate for those who accepted the fewest, "there was no such linear association between mortality and sent friendship requests," the study notes. 

Fowler admits that particular finding was "disappointing," as it could simply mean that healthy people attract more friends. 

"The next step past a study like this is to try to figure out, well, what can we do about this?" he said. "It's easier to imagine getting people to make friends than getting them to, say, be more physically attractive or getting them to be more popular in some way. It's a harder thing to change."

Getting support in 'times of need'

Still, Fowler found some hope in the findings about who is getting the most out of their Facebook friends.

Having online friendships doesn't mean you're less likely to die of cancer, but it is connected with a reduced mortality rate from heart disease, drug overdoses and suicide.

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Facebook friends could provide support when you need it, researchers say. (Getty Images)

That's true for online and offline friendships, Fowler said. 

"People are able to get social support during times of need, during times of crisis. When people are unhealthy, there are people that can take care of them," he said. 

What's more, there's peer pressure at play. 

"Social behaviours can be transmitted from person to person, so if your friends starts exercising, you're more likely to exercise. If your friend starts eating better, you're more likely to start eating better," Fowler said.

A good first step

Despite the study's wide scope, the authors admit it has weaknesses.

Some of the findings might be explained by the fact that Facebook users tend to come from higher socioeconomic backgrounds — people who can afford computers and know how to use them.

What's more, the study is limited to a period of two years within the state of California.  A longer-term study of a more widespread population could generate different results.  

But Fowler said it's an important "first step" to understanding the value of online interactions.

"More and more of our social life, I think, is going to be conducted online," he said.