SOURCES: Robert Kraut, Ph.D., professor, human-computer interaction, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh; Matthias Mehl, Ph.D., associate professor, psychology, University of Arizona; Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, July 26, 2016
FRIDAY, Sept. 9, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- Like it or not, Facebook has the potential to lift your well-being, a new study suggests.
Researchers found that when people who care about you send personal messages to you through the social media site, the benefits can be significant.
Actions such as simply hitting "like" and passively reading wide-ranging posts are unlikely to have an impact, however.
Friends need to spend some time and write something personal, said study co-author Robert Kraut. He's a professor of human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
"We found that particular kinds of messages that people receive on Facebook are associated with improvements in well-being," he said.
How great are these improvements? Sometimes as much as those stemming from a major life event such as marriage or a new baby, the researchers contended.
The communication doesn't have to be labor-intensive, said Kraut and study co-author Moira Burke, a research scientist at Facebook.
Just a sentence or two can be enough, they noted. What matters is that someone such as a close friend takes the time to personalize it, they pointed out.
If it's uplifting and reminds the recipient of their close relationships, it can have a positive effect, the researchers reported.
The bottom line? "People derive benefits from online communication, as long as it comes from others they care about and has been tailored for them," the authors wrote.
Facebook, with 1.5 billion users, has taken some criticism recently, with some research concluding the more time you spend on it, the worse shape you're in psychologically.
But, Kraut said, most previous studies linking time on social media with loneliness and depression are cross-sectional -- done at one point in time. "So it's hard to make any generalization on what effect Facebook has on people's well-being," he said.
Because this study followed people over time, the researchers said it comes closer to establishing a causal relationship than prior one-time surveys.
The study was published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication.
The researchers tracked nearly 2,000 Facebook users from 91 countries who agreed to have their online activity monitored for three months. Their types of activity, such as posting, passive reading, commenting, one-click responses and other actions, were examined.
Message content wasn't analyzed, and users were able to remain anonymous. However, the researchers could identify whether interactions were with close friends or acquaintances.
Participants were tested monthly on measures of well-being, which included mood, perceived social support, life satisfaction, depression, stress and loneliness.
The findings ring true to Matthias Mehl, associate professor of psychology at the University of Arizona.
Mehl, who has researched communication and happiness, has found in his own work that conversations of substance were related to well-being much more than superficial small talk. The new study results seem to find the same, but online, he said.
"So, the happy life is a conversationally deep life, offline or online, it seems," Mehl said.
Depending on how one uses social media, Kraut said, it has the potential to boost well-being. "You have a choice of what you do online, how much time you spend online," he said. "If you use it in ways that are beneficial, it can be a force for good."
Many Facebook users devote hours to reviewing other's posts or updating their status, Kraut noted. "That doesn't have the same good effects as directly communicating with someone," he said.
For more about social networks and older adults' health, see the American Psychological Association.