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UMass Amherst Researchers Receive $3.1 Million Grant to Study Health Behaviors of Urban Massachusetts Adolescents

A new interdisciplinary research project at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences has received a five-year, $3.1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to help understand patterns of health behaviors and outcomes among diverse urban adolescents in Massachusetts.

[Photo: Dr. John Sirard]

The cross-campus collaboration, which was organized through the UMass Computational Social Science Institute (CSSI), will study friendship and health behavior among students in four middle schools from sixth through eighth grade, allowing the researchers to observe the interplay of the social environment and health behaviors over three consecutive years.

The project is led by Dr. John Sirard, assistant professor of kinesiology at Umass, and Dr. James Kitts, professor of sociology, with collaborators Dr. Mark Pachucki, sociology, Dr. Lindiwe Sibeko, nutrition, and Dr. Krista Gile, mathematics and statistics.

“In recent decades, American adolescents have experienced increasing screen time and decreasing physical activity and diet quality, leading to deteriorating health outcomes,” Dr. Sirard says. He explains that, to date, school-based interventions to improve adolescent health have realized only limited success.

Dr. Pachucki says that we may better promote adolescent health if we give attention to social forces that influence health behavior. For example, he describes research suggesting that adolescents tend to have similar health behavior and health outcomes as their friends.

“Although some have referred to this pattern as ‘contagion’ of behavior among friends, the mechanisms underlying this clustering of behaviors and outcomes remain unclear,” Dr. Kitts says.

Drs. Kitts and Sirard say that some plausible reasons for this clustering are that students may become friends because they are similar, friends may take part in similar activities and be exposed to similar environments, or friends may affect each other’s behavior directly. The researchers believe that a better understanding of these phenomena would aid in the design of more effective health interventions tailored to the specific social environments of adolescents.

The research team will use cutting-edge statistical models to analyze patterns of students’ friendships and health behaviors. They will use insights from these analyses to develop computer models that simulate how these processes operate in a range of school environments. These models may be used by school administrators, care providers and those interested in adolescent wellness to explore potential intervention scenarios on adolescent health behaviors and outcomes.

Pilot research for the project was supported by seed grants from UMass Amherst College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and the department of kinesiology within the School of Public Health and Health Sciences.