Public Health: Health-related Behaviors in Social Networks – University of Copenhagen

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Public Health: Health-related Behaviors in Social Networks

Health-related behaviors like alcohol consumption, physical inactivity, smoking, drug abuse and disturbed sleep patterns represent major preventable risk factors for morbidity and mortality. In order to develop effective preventive programs, we need to know how such behavioral patterns are established and maintained.

There is a rising awareness that social relations may be central in this regard. For example research has suggested that social relations are associated with smoking habits, diet and compliance with medical treatment at the individual level. In general, healthier habits are more common among those with access to well-functioning social relations.

An interesting question, however, is if the characteristics of the social network as a whole influence health behaviors in a population. Highly discussed and cited studies have suggested that health-related behaviors spread through social networks like an infectious disease because we mimic the behavior of our peers. However, clustering of certain behaviors may also be due to the fact that we seek out peers who exhibit behaviors similar to our own.

The main challenge for all studies of behavior is to disentangle the contagious effects (i.e. behavior spreading from one individual to the next through the network) from the clustering of behavior that is due to individuals seeking out relations to others with similar behavior (sometimes called latent homophily). Previous studies in this area have been criticized for not being able to separate these complex feedback mechanisms between social networks and health-related behavior.

Through The Social Fabric/Sensible DTU project we aim to establish how health-related behavior spreads through or emerge in newly formed social networks of 1000 freshman students repeatedly followed for changes in both health-related behavior and their social networks over a full academic year. Focusing on social networks as they develop among new university students considerably adds to the existing literature, which has almost exclusively looked at existing networks. Addressing newly formed networks will enable us to distinguish between contagious and homophilic effects. Moreover, focusing specifically on a young group of freshman students will provide a unique opportunity to follow early establishments of behavioral patterns that may persist many years into adult life and potentially have a major impact on the burden of disease.

Combined, these features provide an unprecedented possibility to gain insights into the mechanisms that determine our behavioral patterns in early adult life, which is essential for guiding future preventive strategies.