Facebook Friends with (Health) Benefits? Exploring
Social Network Site Use and Perceptions
of Social Support, Stress, and Well-Being
Robin L. Nabi, PhD,1Abby Prestin, PhD,2and Jiyeon So, PhD3
There is clear evidence that interpersonal social support impacts stress levels and, in turn, degree of physical
illness and psychological well-being. This study examines whether mediated social networks serve the same
palliative function. A survey of 401 undergraduate Facebook users revealed that, as predicted, number of
Facebook friends associated with stronger perceptions of social support, which in turn associated with reduced
stress, and in turn less physical illness and greater well-being. This effect was minimized when interpersonal
network size was taken into consideration. However, for those who have experienced many objective life
stressors, the number of Facebook friends emerged as the stronger predictor of perceived social support. The
‘‘more-friends-the-better’’ heuristic is proposed as the most likely explanation for these findings.
well-being.1However, perceived social support, or the per-
ception that social relationships could provide needed emo-
tional and instrumental resources,2can be a powerful
moderating factor in this relationship. Indeed, the social
support literature has emphasized how integration into inter-
personal networks may contribute to greater perceptions of
available resources. However, given the meteoric rise in the
use of social networking sites (SNSs), such as Facebook and
MySpace, the scope of possible perceived social support re-
sources has widened dramatically. Yet, it is unclear whether
integration into mediated friend networks has the same pal-
liative effects as more direct interpersonal networks. This re-
search contributes uniquely to the existing literature by
investigating the role SNS use plays in the dynamic among
perceived social support, perceived stress, and both physical
and psychological well-being.
esearch demonstrates that psychological stress is
inversely associated with physical and psychological
Online SNSs, social support, and well-being
By late 2011, SNSs reached 1.2 billion users worldwide, or
82% of the world’s online population.3This growth has been
driven by Facebook, which now boasts more than 800 million
members,4and accounts for about 75% of time spent on SNSs
and 1 in every 7 minutes spent online.3Despite the wealth of
research on Facebook (see Wilson et al.5for a recent review),
very little research examines the relationships among Face-
book use, social support, and well-being. Of the research that
has investigated social support, the extant studies focus on
how Facebook and related platforms provide opportunities
for social support seeking and provision,6,7though they do
not typically extend their inquiry to mental and physical
The few studies that have examined psychological well-
being as a function of Facebook use have yielded mixed re-
sults. For example, Sundar et al.8found that Facebook use
frequency did not associate with life satisfaction, whereas
Kontos et al.9found that SNS users reported greater psy-
chological distress than nonusers did. However, neither
study considered the role of social support and both focused
on use frequency rather than on the network size itself.
Researchthathasconsidered therelationships amongFace-
book network size, perceived social support, and psycho-
logical health supports a positive relationship between
number of Facebook friends and perceived well-being.10,11
However, the role of social support is still unclear. Manago
et al.10found a relationship between network size and per-
ceived social support, but they did not consider the latter’s
relationship to perceived stress. Kim and Lee11did examine
the meditational role of perceived social support, but did not,
as expected, find it to influence the network size-perceived
1Department of Communication, University of California–Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, California.
2National Cancer Institute, Rockville, Maryland.
3Department of Communication, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia.
CYBERPSYCHOLOGY, BEHAVIOR, AND SOCIAL NETWORKING
Volume 16, Number X, 2013
ª Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.
well-being relationship, though other evidence suggests that
perceived emotional support from a single Facebook friend
may associate with lower perceived stress.12Thus, though the
literature hints at a dynamic among Facebook network size,
perceived social support, and psychological well-being, the
nature of these relationships is still unclear.
As to possible physical effects of Facebook use, though the
literature to date has suggested Facebook as a promising
channel for health promotion13and has explored Facebook
use by physicians14and patients,15no extant research has
examined the relationship between any Facebook use vari-
able and physical health outcomes. The paucity of research
examining how SNS use links to physical and psychological
well-being is somewhat surprising given the extensive re-
search linking social support to health outcomes.1Given the
unprecedented ability of SNSs to enhance the salience and
visibility of one’s social network, affording greater opportu-
nity for perceiving social support, and given recent psycho-
physiological evidence that Facebook use associates with a
positive core flow state,16it is both important and relevant to
inquire how that perceived social support might translate
into health benefits for users. For this, we turn to the concept
of psychological stress.
Theorizing the relationships among social support,
psychological stress, and well-being
Psychological stress refers to the disequilibrium that re-
sults when people perceive that they lack the resources
necessary to meet the demands placed on them within their
environments.17,18Importantly, according to the cognitive-
phenomenological theory of stress,19it is the perception of
the potential stressor based on goal-relevant appraisals (e.g.,
event significance, resources available)—not the objective
environmental conditions themselves—that predict both
levels of psychological stress as well as people’s ability to
manage and adapt to their extant circumstances.
Extensive research demonstrates that psychological stress
inversely associates with physical health and psychological
well-being.1Further, there is extensive evidence that social
support—both instrumental and emotional—can help reduce
feelings of stress, thus minimizing its negative physical ef-
fects.1,20This palliative impact of social support has been
explained by two models. The main effects model proposes
that social support has a direct effect on health such that
strong social support networks and satisfactory social sup-
port enhance health and well-being by minimizing stress,
whereas weak social networks and a lack of social support act
as stressors that have deleterious health effects.21Alter-
natively, the buffering hypothesis proposes that those with
greater levels of social support enjoy greater health and well-
being than those with comparatively poor social support
when facing stressful life events or under conditions of
greater stress.22,23Specifically, those with stronger social
support networks may perceive the availability of more
coping resources in times of high stress, which decreases the
likelihood that stressful events will be interpreted as threats.
These support beliefs may also dampen any negative affect
associated with stressful life events as well as influence
Largely through the lens of the main effects model, re-
searchers have found strong evidence for the health benefits
of social integration.25–31In contrast, support for the buffering
hypothesis has been mixed,32,33arguably because of variance
in how social support has been operationalized.34Still, re-
search shows that perceived support, or the belief that sup-
port is available if needed, is a particularly strong shield
against the injuries of stress on well-being.35
To the extent that SNSs either replace or augment more
direct social contact, understanding whether or not online
friendships alter the health benefits of more direct social
contact is of great social relevance, especially given the
massive diffusion of SNS use. This study attempts to bridge
the gap between the interpersonal social support and health
literature and the nascent body of literature on the health
effects of SNS use by examining whether Facebook friend-
ships are associated with physical and psychological health
benefits via perceptions of social support and stress.
If those with more Facebook friends perceive themselves
to have a broad social network, they will likely perceive
themselves to have at their disposal a wealth of potential
social support, regardless of actual support provided. As
the perception of social support availability should increase
the perception of resources available to meet life’s demands,
perceived stress should be reduced and negative health
impacts minimized. Thus, we predict that number of
Facebook friends will indirectly affect physical health by
increasing perceived social support and reducing perceived
stress (Hypothesis 1 [H1]).
Although Kim and Lee11found that number of Facebook
friends associates with psychological well-being, they did not
find that relationship to be mediated by perceived social
support. However, we posit thatperceived social support will
prove central if we also consider perceived stress as a mod-
erator. Thus, we predict that number of Facebook friends will
indirectly benefit psychological health by increasing per-
ceived social support and reducing perceived stress (Hy-
pothesis 2 [H2]).
Given the overlap between Facebook friends and friends in
the real world, it is important to consider how any relation-
ships found among these constructs fare in light of controlling
for interpersonal social support networks. We expect that
interpersonal social support will have a stronger relationship
to these variables. Our primary question, though, is whether
Facebook networks will maintain any relationship to the
outcomes of interest when controlling for interpersonal social
networks (Research Question 1 [RQ1])? Finally, in light of the
buffering hypothesis, we also examine whether the relation-
ships we uncover differ for those who have experienced
many life stressors compared to those with less objective
stress (Research Question 2 [RQ2]).
Participants and procedure
Undergraduate students participated in an online survey
in exchange for course extra credit. Of the 444 students who
began the survey, 423 completed it. Two participants were
significant outliers across multiple variables and thus were
dropped from analyses. Of the remaining participants, the
vast majority (95%, n=401) reported having a Facebook ac-
count and are the sample for these analyses. The majority of
participants were female (78%). Their average age was 19.90
years (SD=1.51), and 57% were white.
2NABI ET AL.
Pennebaker Inventory of Limbic Languidness (PILL),36which
assesses the frequency with which participants experience a
broad array of physical symptoms and sensations. Forty-
eight items from the PILL relevant to college students were
included and averaged to create a composite measure of
physical illness (a=0.92).
Physical illness was measured with the
14-item global measure of perceived stress.37These items
(e.g., ‘‘how often in the past month have you felt nervous or
stressed’’) were measured with five-point scales, ranging
from 1 (never) to 5 (very often) (M=2.78, SD=0.53, a=0.86).
Perceived stress was assessed with the
Stressful life events.
pants completed the Social Readjustment Rating Scale for
minors,38which includes a checklist of 48 stressful life events,
including ‘‘change to a new school,’’ ‘‘pregnancy,’’ and
‘‘broken engagement.’’ This scale taps into cumulative life
stressors, which is the standard approach for testing the
buffering hypothesis.33Participants indicated having experi-
enced on average 21.22 (SD=7.10) of the 48 stressors.
At the end of the survey, partici-
Facebook accounts and indicate how long (years and months)
they had been a member of Facebook, their total number of
Facebook friends (M=375, SD=242), and the number of Face
book friends they considered to be close friends (M=56,
SD=80). Given the positive skew of number of Facebook
friends, this variable was transformed by taking its square
root for analysis purposes. Participants were also asked to
estimate how many times they login to Facebook per day and
per week. These items were combined to obtain an estimate of
daily frequency of Facebook use (M=6.41, SD=4.86).
Participants were asked to open their
Social network size.
both interpersonal and Facebook contexts with the social
network index (SNI).29,39Interpersonal network size was
computed by adding the number of relatives, close friends,
acquaintances, fellow students, neighbors, teachers, co-
workers, and religious groups with whom participants com-
municate at least once every 2 weeks (M=29.56, SD=8.02).
Similarly,Facebooknetworksize was computedby adding the
number of people in the relevant social groups indicated in the
Social network size was assessed for
SNI that they communicate with on Facebook every 2 weeks
Perceived social support.
assessed with the 12-item Multidimensional Scale of Per-
ceived Social Support.40Items (e.g., ‘‘My family really tries to
help me’’) were rated on seven-point Likert scales (M=6.12,
Perceived social support was
Facebook use and psychological well-being, we included the
five-item Satisfaction with Life Scale,41which taps into the
global life satisfaction component of subjective well-being.
Items (e.g., ‘‘I am satisfied with my life’’) were rated on seven-
point Likert scales (M=5.10, SD=1.31, a=0.90). We also
assessed the traits of optimism (with the Life Orientation
Test-Revised, a=0.87)42and self-esteem (with the Rosenberg
Self-Esteem Scale, a=0.89)43given their possible associations
with the primary variables of interest.
To explore the relationship between
Path modeling was undertaken to examine the process
through which Facebook friendships might link to physical
and psychological health. Using AMOS 16.0, the hypothesized
relationships among the key variables for H1 and H2 were
modeled. In addition, paths between variables that signifi-
cantly correlated were included (Table 1), and nonsignificant
paths were removed to produce a final model. This process
was repeated to answer RQ1 by adding interpersonal network
size to the model. Finally, a moderated mediation model was
run to test RQ2, comparing models for high- and low-stressed
groups. As it is recommended practice to use multiple fit in-
dices,44the path models’ goodness of fit were judged using the
fit index (CFI) of 0.90 or greater, (c) an relative fit index (RFI)
close to 1, and (d) a root-mean-squared error of approximation
(RMSEA) less than or equal to 0.08.
Facebook friends, perceived social support,
perceived stress, and well-being
H1 and H2 predicted that number of Facebook friends
would increase perceptions of social support, which would
then reduce perceived stress, and in turn minimize physical
illness and enhance psychological well-being. The resulting
Table 1. Correlations, Means, and Standard Deviations of Variables in the Path Analysis
2. Number of Facebook friends
3. Interpersonal network size
4. Perceived social support
5. Perceived stress
7. Life satisfaction
***p<0.001, **p<0.01, *p<0.05.
PILL, Pennebaker Inventory of Limbic Languidness.
SNS USE, PERCEIVED SOCIAL SUPPORT, AND HEALTH3
model (Fig. 1) achieved an acceptable fit to the data, v2/df
ratio=1.42, p=0.20, CFI=0.992, RFI=0.91, RMSEA=0.03. As
predicted, the total number of Facebook friends increased
perceptions of social support (b=0.12, p=0.013), which in
turn associated with reduced stress (b= -0.30, p<0.001),
which in turn minimized physical illness (b=0.37, p<0.001)
and boosted life satisfaction (b= -0.45, p<0.001). Also, the
number of Facebook friends evidenced a direct relationship
with life satisfaction (b=0.12, p=0.003), as did perceived so-
cial support (b=0.26, p<0.001). Given the indirect relation-
ship between number of Facebook friends and physical
illness, H1 is supported. The indirect and direct relationships
of Facebook friends with life satisfaction support H2.
In further support of the hypotheses, self-reported Face
book network size also associated with perceived social
support at a level comparable, though slightly smaller, to that
of the actual number of friends (b=0.09, p=0.08). However,
the estimated number of close friends on Facebook did not
associate with perceived social support (b=0.04, p=0.41).
Thus, it seems that the objective number of friends, rather
than the quality of those relationships, drove the predicted
Comparing the palliative influence of Facebook versus
interpersonal network size
To explore RQ1, we ran another model that included inter-
personal network size. The model yielded an acceptable fit
to the data, v2/df ratio=0.995, p=0.45, CFI=1.00, RFI=
0.923, RMSEA=0.000. As shown in Figure 2, interpersonal
network size associated with perceived social support as well
as number ofFacebook friends, and consequently reduced the
relationship between the latter variables to below the
threshold of statistical significance (b=0.08, p=0.11). Thus,
number of Facebook friends did not offer unique benefits to
perceived social support beyond that of one’s interpersonal
network. However, the relationship to life satisfaction per-
sisted (b=0.12, p=0.003), suggesting that there are unique
psychological benefits to having many friends on Facebook
beyond the role of interpersonal networks.
The role of Facebook friends for high-versus
To test the buffering hypothesis (RQ2), we divided the
sample into higher- versus lower-stress groups, based on a
median split on the number of experienced life stressors.
Results of a moderated mediation model (Fig. 3A, B) sug-
gested that for those who had experienced fewerlife stressors,
interpersonal network size significantly associated with per-
ceived social support (b=0.27, p<0.001), whereas number
of Facebook friends did not (b=0.04, p=0.52). However, for
those who had experienced more life stressors, the number of
Facebook friends maintained a significant path to perceived
social support (b=0.14, p=0.04), whereas the path from the
interpersonal network size was reduced to nonsignificance
(b=0.08, p=0.24). The model had an acceptable fit to the data,
v2/df ratio=0.78, p=0.72, CFI=1.00, RFI=0.887, RMSEA=
0.000. Thus, these data support the buffering hypothesis for
the total number of Facebook friends, above and beyond the
effect of interpersonal networks.
This research was designed to explore whether the social
affiliation opportunities made available through SNSs, like
Facebook, offer the same psychological and physical health
benefits that interpersonal social networks have been shown
to confer. As predicted, number of Facebook friends (though
no other measure of Facebook use) associated with greater
perceived social support, which in turn associated with re-
duced stress, and in turn less physical illness and greater
psychological well-being. This effect was minimized when
interpersonal network size was taken into consideration.
However, for those who had experienced more objective life
stressors, number of Facebook friends continued to be the
stronger predictor of perceived social support. These results,
then, provide support for the buffering effect of Facebook
friends, offering unique evidence that even in light of inter-
personal social networks, highly stressed individuals receive
health benefits from their Facebook friends.
These results are not entirely consistent with past findings,
as Kim and Lee11did not find perceived social support to
mediate the relationship between number of Facebook
friends and psychological well-being. This discrepancy is
likely readily explained, however, by the differences in
measures used. Kim and Lee11used the Interpersonal Sup-
port Evaluation List, which measures perceived availability
of four social support resources all modified for the Facebook
context, whereas we used a more general perceived social
support scale that was not linked to Facebook. Thus, number
at p<0.05. v2/df ratio=1.42, p=0.20, CFI=0.99, RFI=0.91, RMSEA=0.03. Sex was included in the model but not depicted in
the figure in the interest of parsimony in presentation. CFI, comparative fit index; RFI, relative fit index; RMSEA, root-mean-
squared error of approximation.
The influence of number of Facebook friends on physical and psychological well-being. Each coefficient is significant
4NABI ET AL.
of Facebook friends may not relate to perceived social sup-
port from Facebook, though it may relate to perceived social
support in general. Worth noting, our data were consistent
with past studies8,9suggesting that Facebook use frequency
does not benefit life satisfaction. In light of the collection of
research to this point, it seems that the number of Facebook
friends, but not Facebook usage per se, benefits psychological
well-being, though it is still too early to make definitive
Why would only the absolute number of Facebook friends
predict perceived social support and subsequent health ben-
efits and not other measures of Facebook use? We reason that
Facebook users apply a heuristic based on their number of
friends to gauge social support availability. The greater the
being. Each coefficient is significant at p<0.05 with the exception of the number of Facebook friends-perceived social support
relationship. Sex was included in these analyses though omitted from the figure for the sake of parsimony in presentation. v2/
df ratio=0.995, CFI=1.00, RFI=0.923, RMSEA=0.000. CFI, comparative fit index; RFI, relative fit index; RMSEA, root-mean-
squared error of approximation.
The influence of number of Facebook friends and interpersonal network size on physical and psychological well-
being for low-stressed groups. Each coefficient is significant at p<0.05. v2/df ratio=0.96, p=0.49, CFI=1.00, RFI=0.824,
RMSEA=0.000. (B) The influence of number of Facebook friends and interpersonal network size on physical and psycho-
logical well-being for high-stressed groups. Each coefficient is significant at p<0.05. v2/df ratio=0.82, p=0.62, CFI=1.00,
RFI=0.929, RMSEA=0.000. CFI, comparative fit index; RFI, relative fit index; RMSEA, root-mean-squared error of ap-
(A) The influence of number of Facebook friends and interpersonal network size on physical and psychological well-
SNS USE, PERCEIVED SOCIAL SUPPORT, AND HEALTH5
number of friends, the more connected people perceive
themselves to be, regardless of the exact nature of that
connection, the messages received, and so on, which in
turn opens people up to the benefits of perceiving greater
support (i.e., reduced stress and enhanced well-being). Indeed,
this notion of a ‘‘friends’’ heuristic can help explain why
the total number of Facebook friends offered palliative
benefits beyond that of interpersonal networks for those un-
der high stress. Specifically, those under high stress may
feel less connected and thus be more sensitive to cues of so-
cial connectedness. One’s number of Facebook friends is a
readily available cue that is not available in the interper-
There are, of course, other possible explanations for our
findings. Most notably, perhaps Facebook and interpersonal
network sizes associate with personality traits, like extra-
version45and shyness,46which also relate to well-being.47,48
To address this alternative hypothesis, we reran our analyses
including measures of optimism and self-esteem, both of
which related significantly to Facebook network size, per-
ceived stress, perceived social support, and psychological
well-being. The majority of the relationships reported were
not meaningfully altered, though including self-esteem did
affect some relationships with perceived social support.
Given that one’s social network size likely influences self-
esteem, we believe that it is more likely an additional mediator
rather than an alternative explanation. Further, in each case
the Facebook friends–psychological well-being relationship
endured. Thus, we believe that it is unlikely that personality
traits fully explain our findings. Still, exploring key motiva-
tions for Facebook use as they relate to social interaction (e.g.,
the need to belong and need for self-presentation)49,50may
help shed greater light on this dynamic.
There are certainly limitations to this research. First, the
cross-sectional nature of the data precludes claims of cau-
sality, though the models presented are consistent with pro-
cesses laid out in the coping literature. Second, though the
sample was adequately powered to detect small associations,
it was not adequately powered to detect differences in small
associations, which would have required much larger sample
sizes. Finally, though we employed previously used and
validated measures of physical illness, our primary depen-
dent measure was still based on self-report, which is sus-
ceptible to reporting error. Clearly, additional research is
needed to validate and elaborate on the findings reported
Despite these possible concerns, this research presents
unique evidence that number of Facebook friends can indi-
rectly benefit both physical health and psychological well-
being through processes involving perceived social support.
We argue that these findings are explained by the application
of a ‘‘more-friends-the-better’’ heuristic, which suggests that
the more friends one has, the more connected one feels, re-
gardless of actual feedback provided. We wish to be clear that
we do not believe that this heuristic, assuming it exists, is
susceptible to manipulation by simply collecting Facebook
friends indiscriminately. The heuristic would work only to
the extent one believes in the integrity of one’s Facebook
network—that it was developed organically and thus is a
meaningful indicator of one’s social connections. As we await
more nuanced understanding of the conditions under which
this heuristic is applied and to what effect, we can conclude
that apart from what our friends may say, when it comes to
Facebook, the more friends the merrier.
Author Disclosure Statement
No competing financial interests exist.
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Address correspondence to:
Dr. Robin L. Nabi
Department of Communication
University of California–Santa Barbara
4137 SSMS Building
Santa Barbara, CA 93106
SNS USE, PERCEIVED SOCIAL SUPPORT, AND HEALTH7