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20 March 2024

Online communication is a promising source for the design of social network interventions

Boosting influential youth’s physical activity can, in turn, enhance the activity of their social networks. However, identifying who the influential peers among youth are remains a big challenge. Traditionally, adolescents are asked to self-report who they are close with. Then, influential peers are chosen based on the number of nominations, also called “peer nomination”. An alternative approach to identifying influential peers is to analyze adolescents’ online interactions, for example, how often they communicate with each other. This study in JMIR Pediatrics Parenting compares the impact of social network interventions on physical activity using both approaches. It shows that the approach based on online interactions can have a significant impact on physical activity.

Take aways

  • Online interactions can be used to determine peer influencers in social network intervention design.
  • Even though there is a considerable difference in influential peers identified through self-reported peer-nomination versus online interactions, both approaches, can result in a successful social network intervention.
  • Considering the difference between the two methods, the researchers advise to use online interactions as complementary to traditional self-report methods of peer influencer identification.

Study information

  • Who?

    408 teenagers in 21 school classes (mean age 10.6 years, age range 8-15 years, 54% female)

  • Where?

    The Netherlands

  • How?

    The researchers assessed the social networks using 1) peer nomination questions and 2) online interactions from a social media app. Physical activity level (PAL) was measured as the number of steps taken per day. Using social network analysis, the researchers identified influential peers in both social networks. They then simulated social network interventions in a virtual environment. Influential peers received health training which increased their PAL by 17%. All influential peers and their classmates were then followed for 200 days to assess to what degree the PAL had changed. Results were compared between social network interventions using online interactions and peer-nominations.

Facts and findings

  • The two approaches identified different peer influencers, resulting in only 24-27% overlap in influential peers identified.
  • The intervention was projected to increase the physical activity of peers by around 5-6% in 2 months using either approach, involving about 500-600 extra steps per day.
  • Importantly, the outcomes were very sensitive to the effectiveness of the health training of the peer influencers. A reduction in training from 17% to 5% would reduce the impact of the social network intervention to around 2% in both approaches.