By Drew Reynolds, doctoral candidate at the Boston College School of Social Work
The American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare has identified twelve critical Grand Challenges to engage the public in identifiable and achievable goals to reduce suffering and promote wellbeing. Each of these challenges – from the reduction of social isolation to the ending of homelessness – are fundamentally social in nature and require a firm understanding of the social environment. The individuals and communities relegated to society’s margins are enmeshed in social relationships that both provide access to resources and opportunities and expose them to risk and disease. Tackling the Grand Challenges requires a fundamental theoretical understanding of how we are connected to each other and how our social networks impact our health and wellbeing.
Social network analysis is an analytical tool that centers on connections – who our friends and family are, who we are connected to, and the organizations and institutions that impact our lives – and how these connections impact our health and wellbeing. Researchers have used network perspectives to examine many of the social problems outlined in the Grand Challenges for Social Work.
But what does it look like? While the potential for network studies to address these challenges is vast, I present one example of my research published in the Journal of Adolescence to illustrate how network research might contribute to one of the Grand Challenges – preventing behavioral health problems in youth.
The issue: There is a large body of research documenting the impact of peer influences on youth behaviors. Youth are more likely to be delinquent, use tobacco, participate in bullying, and engage in a host of risk behaviors when their peers are involved in these behaviors. What is less understood are the factors that help youth resist negative influences in youth social networks.
The idea: Using data from Add Health, we examined the friendship networks constructed from student friendship nominations, delinquency behaviors, and depressive affect of a nationally representative sample of 13,000 youth. This study looked at how these relationships were related to delinquency and depression behaviors and what factors may be associated with the influence of these behaviors across friendship networks.
The findings: In our research, we found that:
- Youth who are able to self-regulate their behaviors – through setting goals and making good decisions – are less likely to engage in the delinquency behaviors of their peers.
- Youth who are enmeshed in friendship networks – that is, more popular, more central, and more connected – are more likely to adopt the depressive affect and participate in the delinquency behaviors passing through that network.
- Youth who have a close group of friends may be protected from the spread of depressive affect and delinquency behaviors through networks.
The next steps: Reducing behavioral problems requires attention to the relationships that make up the social environment of youth. Based on this research, future interventions might encourage self-regulation skills to help youth become more resilient to negative peer influences. More broadly, social position – like being popular – may make youth more susceptible to these influences.
While prevention remains an important framework for addressing the challenges of youth behavior, research on how to promote positive behaviors – and the spread of these behaviors through friendship networks – is much more limited. In my future research, I aim to answer the question of whether positive behaviors can be spread via peer influence with the goal of developing evidence-based interventions that not only prevent negative behaviors but also promote positive behaviors in youth.
The takeaway: Since the beginning of the profession, social work has engaged with social problems by recognizing individuals as both contributors to and products of their social environment. Network analysis explicitly examines the relationships between individuals and their environments and provides both a methodological and theoretical lens to guide what social workers do – tackle social problems.