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Proximity Affects Influence of Online 'Health Buddies'

Study finds long-distance friends less likely to sway behavior than close-knit social networks

THURSDAY, Sept. 2, 2010 (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 advice.

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 Science.

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 health concerns.

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 friends.

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.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses social media tools to promote health.

SOURCE: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, news release, Sept. 2, 2010
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