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Three ways to improve research on social support in smoking interventions

Research on social support needs a “fundamental shift,” especially when it applies to evaluating its effect in online smoking cessation interventions.

That’s the central premise of a recent commentary led by Dr. Amanda L. Graham, a research investigator at the Schroeder Institute® for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies at Truth Initiative®.

Published in Translational Behavioral Medicine, the commentary addresses potential reasons for why many studies focusing on social support interventions for smoking cessation have “yielded disappointing results.” The rise in the popularity of online social networks has accelerated interest in evaluating the role of social support specifically in online health interventions, and made it even more important to carefully consider earlier research.

Today, the internet is littered with online social networks that have failed to find a following among researchers

Noting that “research on online networks is very much still in its infancy,” the commentary identifies three “lessons learned” from previous studies to help improve future research:

  • It is important to have a deep understanding of the users that make up an online community before focusing on the technology that can facilitate social relationships and the exchange of social support. We must understand “the complex intrapersonal, interpersonal and sociological elements” that determine how and when communities form and grow before focusing on the ways that technology can be used to support these processes.
  • People seek different levels of social support when attempting behavior change: some choose to go it alone while some choose to seek support from others. Researchers that have attempted to create, augment or otherwise manipulate smokers’ social relationships in the interest of improving quit rates have generally been unsuccessful. For those who rely on support from other people, it may simply be that the “social relationships that form naturally yield the greatest benefit.” 
  • Researchers evaluating the role of social support in online social networks should consider using new statistical, observational and computational methods designed specifically for the online environment. Simply adapting measures and methods from studies of offline social support may miss important nuances and subtleties of the online environment.

Hundreds of thousands of smokers and former smokers connect every year through online communities, giving researchers many opportunities to create new approaches to better understand the influence of online social relationships on smoking behavior.

“Today, the internet is littered with online social networks that, though widely used and valued by users, have failed to find a following among researchers,” Dr. Graham said. “Given the range of tools and rigorous methodological approaches at our disposal, there is an exciting opportunity to study social relationships through a new lens.”