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Freshmen participate in sociology study

| Friday, January 15, 2016

Fitbits, the activity tracking wristbands, have become a popular identifying feature of Notre Dame freshmen this year. Five hundred Fitbit-wearing freshmen are participating in a study called NetHealth, which aims to explore the relationship between social networks and health.

Notre Dame sociologists David Hachen and Omar Lizardo, in conjunction with University computer scientists Aaron Striegel and Christian Poellabauer, are conducting the study. Hachen said the National Institute of Health is funding the study through a $3 million grant.

“The National Institute of Health is very interested in the social conditions that influence peoples’ behaviors, like sleep, diet and activity,” Hachen said.

According to the NetHealth website, the Fitbit devices will be used to track each student’s sleep and fitness, while a monitoring app on their smartphones will record social activity. The study therefore attempts to find a connection between social activity and health, one already seen by freshman Brian Quigley, who is participating in the study.

“I can see my friends on Fitbit and how many steps they have, and so I always want to have more steps than them,” Quigley said. “It’s a way to compete in a friendly manner.”

Hachen said he believes “our patterns and health related behaviors are amplified by the people we hang out with.” The challenge, though, he said, will be determining the direction of the causality between friendship and health.

“The biggest puzzle is we believe we are affected in our behaviors, attitudes, and taste by who we hang out with,” Hachen said. “… It’s also the case that we tend to choose as our friends people that are similar to us, so we’re trying to disentangle whether your networks are influencing you, or you select the networks to be like you.”

In looking to solve that puzzle, Striegel said one of the major questions in this study is, “Do you conform to the group, or do you change the group?”

Hachen said the researchers plan to note changes in each student’s social groups over time, which is made possible by the continuous data collection from the Fitbits and smartphones.

“People’s networks are much more fluid than most social scientists have ever thought,” Hachen said. “So we want to look at how people’s networks change, because if I’m not healthy and I hang out with someone who is healthy, I could become more healthy, or I could stop hanging out with them. I could change my network.”

Hachen also said the study’s use of Fitbits and smartphones will make it more accurate than similar past studies, which usually rely only on surveys for information.

“On surveys, you may not tell the truth, you may not remember or recall your social networks. … By this method, we get continuous, reliable data that’s probably better than the self-reports that come from surveys.”

In addition, Striegel said the study can be used to “improve the health of the network,” since the researchers receive data on how many times people try and fail to connect to the network in different locations on campus, thus allowing them to identify the network’s weaker points.

Hachen said in the next few months the study will be expanded to include about 400 more students — without Fitbits — who, through smartphones and surveys, will further contribute to the data collection. Further, Hachen said in the future he hopes to perform the same study at different universities and with different age groups.

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