How peers influence physical activity in diverse adolescents

Regular physical activity in adolescence is crucial for building the foundation of a lifelong healthy lifestyle. Yet, despite the benefits of exercise and building healthy habits, slightly more than one-quarter of American adolescents are physically active on a regular basis, and there are notable disparities among different racial and ethnic groups.

Research has found that peers have a significant influence on adolescent’s physical activity. Social network analysis (SNA) is a powerful tool for studying the ways social factors affect behavior; however, it is sometimes unclear which SNA methods are best suited for different types of studies.

A recent study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health aims to clarify the relative advantages and disadvantages of different SNA methods in various types of health behavior research. Texas A&M University School of Public Health researchers Tyler Prochnow, PhD, Meg Patterson, PhD, Luis Gomez and Joseph Sharkey, PhD, and colleagues from Baylor University and the University of Missouri-Kansas City conducted four case studies on research covering physical activity and SNA among ethnically and racially diverse adolescents. The intent of this study was to show how different SNA methods can be used to investigate social influences on health behaviors.

SNA investigates how different social connections between people can influence behavior. One SNA approach is known as the egocentric approach. This method focuses on the person being surveyed and usually considers that person’s closest and most personal connections. A contrasting approach, known as whole network analysis, focuses on a defined social network by analyzing the behaviors of each person in the network and their connections to other people within the group.

Each of the four case studies conducted by the research team describes the background and sample, physical activity assessment, SNA approach used and results of a different study. The first case study covered an egocentric analysis of youth engagement in sports, the second looked at an egocentric and whole network study of adolescents in a summer care program, case study three focused on an egocentric study of physical activity in adolescents living in communities on the Texas-Mexico border and the fourth case study looked into an egocentric analysis of children participating in a family-centered health intervention.

The case studies analyzed give examples of different ways to use whole network and egocentric SNA approaches and how social factors could influence physical activity behaviors in adolescents. The researchers also identified ways that the studies could use more advanced SNA techniques to further clarify social influence on health behaviors. For example, analyzing people who the subject in an egocentric study is closest to, known as alter-level analysis, could give a clearer understanding of how factors like the ages and relative closeness of others in the social network could affect their level of influence on the primary subject. Similarly, whole network analyses could use different modeling techniques to collect more data on social networks and how interactions within networks may influence behaviors.

“Social network analysis is such a diverse set of methods that can answer unique research questions,” Prochnow said. I’m really looking forward to seeing how the field of physical activity research can grow and incorporate more of these techniques to improve adolescent health.”

This study gives examples of using SNA methods in physical activity research, but the researchers note that the case studies do not cover all ways SNA can be used in health behavior research. Despite this limitation, the analysis of these case studies demonstrates the importance of social influence in promoting physical activity among adolescents, especially those in different racial and ethnic populations, and how SNA approaches can give a clearer understanding of the various social aspects at play. Having a better understanding of social influences can be used to design more effective programs that can help adolescents build healthy physical activity habits that last a lifetime.

“Social network analysis is such a diverse set of methods that can answer unique research questions,” Prochnow said. “I’m really looking forward to seeing how the field of physical activity research can grow and incorporate more of these techniques to improve adolescent health.”

 

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