It’s been well-documented for decades that people who have strong social circles tend to live longer than their more lonesome counterparts. However, a new study poses the question: does that include online friendships?

A study carried out at the University of California San Diego, which sampled 12 million people, seems to suggest so. “We find that people with more friends online are less likely to die than their disconnected counterparts,” the paper states. “This evidence contradicts assertions that social media have had a net-negative impact on health.”

But don’t get too excited – the findings are interesting, but there are a fair few drawbacks.

Firstly, the study comments that ‘likes’ from strangers don’t really contribute to happiness or overall wellbeing of the user. The only beneficial online relationships are those with whom you have a strong social connection, serving to strengthen existing bonds. A massive follower count or popularity of a post will increase user happiness in the short-term, but there’s no real evidence to suggest that this kind of online popularity serves any long-term health benefits.

Next, the study has a few ties to Facebook itself. William Hobbs, a post-doctorate fellow at Northeastern University, and co-author of the study worked at Facebook as a research intern in 2013. Another of its authors, Moira Burke, is currently a research assistant at Facebook. For what it’s worth, Hobbs notes that Facebook had not interfered with the study, or its results: “We had some things in writing that they couldn’t interfere with the publication of the research no matter what the result was. [We were] pretty confident that we were going to find this result.”

Overall, the study found that average users of the largest social network on the planet were 12% less likely to die than those without a Facebook presence. It went on to comment that those who had a ‘moderate’ usage of Facebook and average/larger than average social networks reaped the biggest health benefits.

Computer Keyboard featuring Facebook 'like' thumbs-up

However, researchers were keen to comment that the study is not without limitation, for example, underlying factors at play which were not included in the study itself. The raw statistics, for example, may undermine various socio-economic differences between user demographics. That is to say, that it’s not a definite certainty that 12% of Facebook users are likely to live longer simply because they do not have internet access, compared to those who do not – a signal which may point to poverty and limited access to healthcare.

The thing that most struck us about the findings of this study is that this may signal the end of distinction between online and offline relationships – it would appear that both are, at least in part, good for our human psyche and overall wellbeing.