-- Alan Mozes
THURSDAY, Sept. 2 (HealthDay News) -- When it comes to online
social networking, people are more likely to change habits that
might affect their health when encouraged to do so by cyber
conversations with friends they already know well and with whom
they are in close contact, new research suggests.
The finding runs contrary to prior indications that health
information gleaned from close-knit online social networks is
actually less likely to drive behavioral change, given the
likelihood that groups of people who are in frequent contact with
each other are likely to exchange repetitive and redundant
This thinking, in turn, has given rise to the notion that
behavior is more likely to change quickly as a result of advice
culled from so-called "long-tie" relationships, namely, online
social networks involving people who live far apart and maintain
contact less often.
"It's startling to see that this is not always the case," study author Damon Centola, an assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, Mass., said in an MIT news release.
Centola's observations are published in the Sept. 3 issue of
After running a series of social networking experiments
involving more than 1,500 participants, Centola found that the
redundancies and repetitiveness that characterizes interactions
among close groups of friends is actually a central driving force
behind encouraging people to change their health behaviors.
"Social reinforcement from multiple health buddies made participants much more willing to adopt the behavior," he wrote in the report.
Centola's experiments revolved around matching up the
participants -- all of whom were anonymously enrolled in an
Internet-based health interests community -- according to shared
Such so-called "health buddies" were in turn classified as being
either of the distant "long-tie" variety or of the densely
clustered, closely connected type.
Over the course of a few weeks, all participants were encouraged
to register for an online health forum Web site designed to rank
health resources. Centola found that people in closely tied social
networks were much more likely to do so. In fact, while 54 percent
of close health buddies registered for the forum, just 38 percent
of those in long-tie social networks did so, he reported.
What's more, regular participation in the forum was more common
among participants in close-tie groups, and these kinds of densely
clustered networks also spurred on a rate of registration that was
four times faster than that observed among far-flung networks of
Centola theorizes that to get people to quickly adopt the kinds
of behavior that might help (for example, prevent the spread of
disease), requires the kind of constant reinforcement found most
readily among close groups of people.
This finding could have "a natural implication in terms of what
this means for designing online communities" when it comes to
promoting public health policies that encourage important
behavioral changes that promote good health, Centola explained in
the news release.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses
media tools to promote health.
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