07/29/2010 05:34 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Is Facebook Shortening Our Lives?

Forget about the alarmism over what Facebook is doing to old ideas of privacy, or to our free time, or to our relationship with advertising. What does it mean for the social connections that help us live long lives?

The argument is well rehearsed: as much as we connect online, we’re actually spending less time together, and this could be bad for us.

A study released this week in PLoS Medicine reinforces a connection researchers have long suggested: strong social relationships are linked with better health. There are several possible reasons for this. People with strong family and social ties may be more active, more likely to seek medical care and have lower stress. We know from research by people like Nicholas Christakis that our social networks can influence our own weight; it’s suspected that maintaining strong bonds in general keeps us happier, more active, more subject to the concern of others.

To be sure, the study focused on real-life relationships, not the sort of social networks that form on Facebook. Christakis and other researchers have argued that Facebook does help reinforce social bonds, allowing us to see our commonalities more easily and initiate more frequent contact. But while Facebook may be a mirror of real-life relationships, it should be clear to anyone who has interacted with friends or so-called friends on Facebook that the content of those interactions are different from real-life ones.

They seem to make us feel differently. An informal survey earlier this year showed that 40 percent of respondents said catching up with their loved ones after work was the happiest time of their day, while more than 20 percent said they were happiest when eating with their families. By contrast, only 5 percent said they were happiest when connecting with friends online, and even fewer – 2 percent – said the first text message of the day made them joyful.

Contrary to those findings, talking to people online can be exhilarating, fun and comforting. But does that lead to more face-to-face interaction, of the sort that has been shown to make us healthier? That’s inconclusive, researchers say. We can’t be sure how face-to-face interaction is changing, or if we’re getting more or less of it (common sense would say that more time in front of a computer means less time being active in the real world).

We do know that we’re interacting online more than ever. So does that automatically mean we’re more social, in the healthy sense of the word?

Of course, the nuanced meaning of being “social” online versus in real life may have disappeared into the black hole that also sucked up the nuances of the words “friend” and “like.” Search for “Facebook” in much of today’s coverage on the study, and the only mention you’ll find is at the end of articles, where we are implored to “like” the article on Facebook.

There is however this misleading headline at the Atlantic about the study, which claims that Facebook could increase your lifespan.

Also, you could get a free iPad.

Exclusive from Read more about Facebook at Motherboard.