Research Article

A Prospective Examination of Online Social Network Dynamics and Smoking Cessation

Research Summary:

Introduction

Use of online social networks for smoking cessation has been associated with abstinence. Little is known about the mechanisms through which the formation of social ties in an online network may influence smoking behavior. Using dynamic social network analysis, we investigated how temporal changes of an individual’s number of social network ties are prospectively related to abstinence in an online social network for cessation. In a network where quitting is normative and is the focus of communications among members, we predicted that an increasing number of ties would be positively associated with abstinence.

Methods

Participants were N = 2,657 adult smokers recruited to a randomized cessation treatment trial following enrollment on BecomeAnEX.org, a longstanding Internet cessation program with a large and mature online social network. At 3-months post-randomization, 30-day point prevalence abstinence was assessed and website engagement metrics were extracted. The social network was constructed with clickstream data to capture the flow of information among members. Two network centrality metrics were calculated at weekly intervals over 3 months: 1) in-degree, defined as the number of members whose posts a participant read; and 2) out-degree-aware, defined as the number of members who read a participant’s post and commented, which was subsequently viewed by the participant. Three groups of users were identified based on social network engagement patterns: non-users (N = 1,362), passive users (N = 812), and active users (N = 483). Logistic regression modeled 3-month abstinence by group as a function of baseline variables, website utilization, and network centrality metrics.

Results

Abstinence rates varied by group (non-users = 7.7%, passive users = 10.7%, active users = 20.7%). Significant baseline predictors of abstinence were age, nicotine dependence, confidence to quit, and smoking temptations in social situations among passive users (ps < .05); age and confidence to quit among active users. Among centrality metrics, positive associations with abstinence were observed for in-degree increases from Week 2 to Week 12 among passive and active users, and for out-degree-aware increases from Week 2 to Week 12 among active users (ps < .05).

Conclusions

This study is the first to demonstrate that increased tie formation among members of an online social network for smoking cessation is prospectively associated with abstinence. It also highlights the value of using individuals’ activities in online social networks to predict their offline health behaviors.

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