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Noted Social Network Researcher Amanda Graham Talks about her Work and the Future

Arlen C. Moller, PhD, TTBCI SIG senior co-chair
Gina Merchant, TTBCI SIG junior co-chair

Amanda Graham
Amanda Graham

In anticipation of the Theories and Techniques of Behavior Change Interventions Special Interest Group (TTBCI SIG) sponsoring 2015 Society of Behavioral Medicine (SBM) Annual Meeting sessions on the topic of social networks and behavioral medicine, we contacted noted social network and behavioral health researcher Amanda Graham, PhD, to ask her about how she was introduced to social network research. We also asked her to weigh in on some important issues related to this emerging research area.

Dr. Graham is the director of research development at the Schroeder Institute for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies, a research institute in Washington, DC, established by Legacy in 2008, with formal academic ties to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Georgetown University’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center.

TTBCI SIG: To get started, can you tell us a little bit about how you got interested in using social network analysis to understand health behavior change?

Graham: My interest in the links between social support/social ties and health started in graduate school; both my master’s thesis and dissertation involved the study of social support in relation to cardiovascular health. When I began studying Web-based interventions for smoking cessation in early 2000s, the critical role of online social networks in promoting abstinence seemed intuitive: getting involved in an online network and directly receiving or being exposed to support from others online should increase the chances of a successful quit attempt. However, the literature on smoking cessation interventions aimed at promoting abstinence by changing the availability of support at the dyadic or small group level had shown mixed and largely underwhelming results. …

Online social networks—and the massive amount of data they generate—provide an exciting opportunity to revisit the mechanisms through which social networks influence behavior. … The entire social network can be characterized dynamically over time at weekly, daily, and even hourly intervals. Individual users can be located within the network and their social position, social roles, and social influence to or from other members can be gleaned from fine-grained content analyses of the communications they read/write. The availability of detailed tracking data—combined with social network metrics, the content of all communications, and changing sentiments over time—presents unique opportunities to examine mechanisms of behavior change.

You are one of only a few researchers to have published research exploring online social support networks in two different health behavior domains: smoking cessation and weight loss (i.e., using data from the QuitNet community in collaboration with Nathan Cobb et al., and with SparkPeople data in collaboration with Kevin Hwang et al.). Can you comment on some of the similarities or difference you observed related to how these two social support networks operate?

Functional online social networks have their own unique “flavor.” They establish particular norms, patterns of behavior, and even dialects based on the unique composition of members. For example, in one social network, reaching out to a new member through a private message may be an accepted custom, whereas in another social network, an initial private message may be perceived as aggressive or overly intimate. Having said that, there are qualities that seem to cut across health behaviors and health conditions that characterize well-established, dynamic online social networks like QuitNet, SparkPeople, and BecomeAnEx (the online social network for smoking cessation that is the subject of my current research). One of these qualities is the persistence of members [who] have attained their behavior change goal and stay involved in the network largely due to a desire to “pay it forward.” Many of these individuals are “key players” or “glue” that maintains the integrity of online networks despite the continual flux of members. A second quality shared by the social networks that I have researched is the predominance of women. Women are more likely to seek health information online for themselves or others, which may explain their greater representation in online social networks.

What excites you and/or what issues do you foresee as this research paradigm grows?

I’m very excited about a new R01 that I just received from the National Cancer Institute titled “Social Dynamics of Substance Use in Online Social Networks for Smoking Cessation.” … Millions of smokers turn to the Internet each year for cessation assistance, and hundreds of thousands seek advice and support in online social networks for smoking cessation, but we still know very little about the ways in which online social networks impact tobacco use. This study will involve an in-depth examination of the 6-year longitudinal dataset from BecomeAnEx, Legacy’s online social network for smoking cessation. … One of the major goals of this study is to construct metrics of the dynamic topology of the network of 650,000 users and examine these metrics as predictors of abstinence in the two subsets where we have known smoking status. The study also involves a series of sentiment analyses and the use of fine-grained text analytics to explore the vast amount of user-generated content from within the network.