- Published in Public Library of Science (PLOS ONE) -

Methods for Inferring Health-Related Social Networks Among Coworkers from Online Communication Patterns

Author(s): Luke J. Matthews; Peter DeWan; Elizabeth Y. Rula

Methods for inferring healthStudies of social networks, mapped using self-reported contacts, have demonstrated the strong influence of social connections on the propensity for individuals to adopt or maintain healthy behaviors and on their likelihood to adopt health risks such as obesity. Social network analysis may prove useful for businesses and organizations that wish to improve the health of their populations by identifying key network positions. Health traits have been shown to correlate across friendship ties, but evaluating network effects in large coworker populations presents the challenge of obtaining sufficiently comprehensive network data. The purpose of this study was to evaluate methods for using online communication data to generate comprehensive network maps that reproduce the health-associated properties of an offline social network. In this study, we examined three techniques for inferring social relationships from email traffic data in an employee population using thresholds based on: (1) the absolute number of emails exchanged, (2) logistic regression probability of an offline relationship, and (3) the highest ranked email exchange partners. As a model of the offline social network in the same population, a network map was created using social ties reported in a survey instrument. The email networks were evaluated based on the proportion of survey ties captured, comparisons of common network metrics, and autocorrelation of body mass index (BMI) across social ties. Results demonstrated that logistic regression predicted the greatest proportion of offline social ties, thresholding on number of emails exchanged produced the best match to offline network metrics, and ranked email partners demonstrated the strongest autocorrelation of BMI. Since each method had unique strengths, researchers should choose a method based on the aspects of offline behavior of interest. Ranked email partners may be particularly useful for purposes related to health traits in a social network.

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Topics: Employer Populations Performance/Productivity Peer Reviewed Community Well-Being Predictive Modeling