Being popular on Facebook may not only feel good, but actually be a sign of good health, suggests new research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers first analyzed mortality data from Californian voters who either did or didn’t use Facebook, finding that users were 12 percent less likely to die within a given year than nonusers. Studying a different group of over 12 million Facebook users born between 1945 to 1989, they then found that people who had modestly large social circles lived longer than those whose networks were in the lowest 10 percent, even after controlling for other factors like age, gender, and marital status. The boosts associated with longevity, however, were only seen among people who received the most friend requests, not those who made them. These popular figures were 34 percent less likely to die within a year than those least popular, while there was no difference in longevity between people who made the most friend requests and those who made the least.

“Given the very strong asso­ci­a­tion between real-​​world inter­ac­tions and better health, it could be that the more you have mod­erate inter­ac­tions online, the more likely you are to be friends with your Face­book friends offline as well, rein­forcing the rela­tion­ships,” explained lead author William R. Hobbs, currently a post­doc­toral research fellow at Boston’s Northeastern University, in a statement. Hobbs had con­ducted the research as a grad­uate stu­dent at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­fornia, San Diego.

Hobbs was careful to point out that his team’s findings merely show an association between Facebook friends and longevity, not a direct cause-and-effect. And the initial comparison between users and nonusers should be taken with a grain of salt, he added, since they had little information to study besides their death rates. Still, he does believe they demonstrate an important aspect of our current social reality — namely that the effects of social media aren’t entirely black or white, but somewhere in between.

“Most Face­book users engaged in mod­erate levels of online inter­ac­tions. How­ever, when num­bers of online inter­ac­tions were extreme, and when we didn’t see evi­dence of users being... con­nected to people offline, we saw asso­ci­a­tions with worse health,” said Hobbs.

As further proof of this, people who posted the most photos but the least status updates were 30 percent less likely to die than users with an average level of activity. Similarly, being tagged in more photos (a reflection of real-world social activities) was associated with a lower risk of death, while sending messages (an online-only activity) wasn’t.

Hobbs and his colleagues hope their findings could someday be used in a proactive way.

“Although this is an associational study, it may be an important step in understanding how, on a global scale, online social networks might be adapted to improve modern populations’ social and physical health,” the authors concluded.

Source: Hobbs R, Burke M, Christakis N, et al. Online social integration is associated with reduced mortality risk. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2016.