Online Program

Gender diversity of boys' social networks is associated with their weight status

Tuesday, November 3, 2015 : 9:24 a.m. - 9:42 a.m.

Mark C. Pachucki, PhD, Mongan Institute for Health Policy, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA
Alene Kennedy-Hendricks, BA, Department of Health Policy and Management, Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, Baltimore, MD
Craig Pollack, MD, MHS, Department of Epidemiology, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD
Background: A consistent observation in studies of human relationships is that individuals often befriend similar others (homophily). A provocative though understudied question among children is whether having friends with different characteristics (network diversity) may play a role in health. Network diversity may expose children to more varied health behaviors, leading a child in a diverse network to make different choices than peers in a non-diverse network.

Objective: We examine the relationship between children’s weight (BMI z-score, a modifiable indicator of cardiometabolic risk) and the gender diversity of their friends.

Methods: In 2011, we surveyed 209 children (8-18y) living in Maryland public housing. Using an egocentric approach, children reported on the characteristics and connections between up to 25 members of their social network. Self-reported height, weight, and socio-demographic information were also assessed. From this cohort, 161 individuals were eligible for inclusion due to completeness of information on BMI and friends’ gender status. 

Results: Gender-stratified linear regression analyses adjusted for socio-demographic background revealed that among boys, each 10% increase in network gender diversity was associated with a 0.13-unit higher BMI z-score (p<0.03). There was no comparable association among girls. Logistic models that specified obesity and overweight/obesity outcomes were not significant, though the direction of association was similar.

Conclusion: Boys with more girls in their friendship networks tend to have higher BMI. It is possible that gender diversity helps reinforce negative weight-related behaviors for boys in ways that it does not for girls, or that higher-BMI boys more readily seek female friendships.

Learning Areas:

Diversity and culture
Public health or related research
Social and behavioral sciences

Learning Objectives:
Explain the importance of studying diversity in human relationships as a possible mechanism contributing to health disparities. Evaluate how gender diversity of a child’s friendship network may be differentially associated with weight status for boys and girls.

Keyword(s): Children and Adolescents, Obesity

Presenting author's disclosure statement:

Qualified on the content I am responsible for because: I am a specialist in the analysis of social networks, health, and health behaviors across the lifecourse. My recent work seeks to evaluate the role that changes in network structure may play in modification of cardiometabolic risk among youth.
Any relevant financial relationships? No

I agree to comply with the American Public Health Association Conflict of Interest and Commercial Support Guidelines, and to disclose to the participants any off-label or experimental uses of a commercial product or service discussed in my presentation.