Peer pressure has substantial influence. It may even be able to change an entire community’s oral health. Researchers from multiple departments at Indiana University (IU) are working together to study the influence of social networks on oral health decisions in underserved communities in the Midwest.
With a $3.6 million, 5-year National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research grant, the IU researchers will apply network science to track multilayered social networks to discover the people of influence who promote and disseminate norms, whether accurate or not, about oral health and dental care.
“We are adding new tools to dental research by using a social network approach to study behaviors, norms, and attitudes, with the goal of creating effective public policy and cultural sensitive clinical care for poor communities,” said Gerardo Maupomé, DDS, PhD, of the IU School of Dentistry.
The researchers believe if they can pinpoint the influential people in a community, such as clergy or midwives, and educate them about proper oral health practices, then these influencers may have a greater impact on changing social norms and improving oral health compared to dental professionals, who may be viewed as outsiders.
“One cultural norm we often find in underserved communities is the belief that baby teeth don’t matter; there is no need to brush them or care for them,” said Maupomé. “Or if people believe they will lose all their teeth just like everyone else in their community, then they are much more apt to eat sugary foods and not brush their teeth.”
These norms are communicated in a variety of ways as people seek advice from peers and discuss their health. They can be expressed in person when people meet, in conversations over the phone, and in old-fashioned letter writing. Then there’s the Internet, with social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.
“We anticipate social media will play a role, but we will measure that channel of communication as we will measure others,” said Maupomé. “We think younger and more computer-savvy participants will use those means of communication more. Once we characterize who uses what, then we will be in a position to think of studies to improve information and outcomes.”
Social network analysis applies mathematical models to establish the characteristics of people who influence change and to identify the people who are the epicenters of influence within these networks. Network methods hinge upon systematically collecting data about the links among individuals and then applying mathematical and computational tools to process and graphically depict complex data.
Once the key players in these networks are identified, the researchers will design interventions to improve oral health. They plan on leveraging how well these players are connected as well as the means of those connections. The researchers then will tailor messages about oral health to the profiles of those players and to the profiles of the people in those players’ networks.
“Applying network science to the daily dental problems of individuals, especially in disadvantaged and understudied groups, represents the cutting edge of preventions,” said Bernice Pescosolido, PhD, codirector of the Indiana University Network Science Institute and a co-investigator of the study.