James Kitts and Mark Pachucki Receive $3.1mil NIH Grant to Study Adolescent Health Behavior

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In recent decades American adolescents have experienced increasing screen time and decreasing physical activity and diet quality, leading to deteriorating health outcomes. There are racial and ethnic disparities in these trends; for example, obesity rates are highest for African American girls and are increasing fastest for Mexican American boys. To date, school-based interventions to improve adolescent health have realized only limited success, and the disparity in health outcomes remains a complex puzzle.

We may find some insight into these problems from a growing body of research suggesting that adolescents tend to have similar health behavior and health outcomes as their friends. However, the mechanisms underlying this clustering of behaviors and outcomes remain unclear. Some common reasons include 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. A better understanding of these phenomena would facilitate design of more effective health interventions tailored to the social environments of adolescents.

A new interdisciplinary research project at the University of Massachusetts Amherst aims to help us understand patterns of health behaviors and outcomes across diverse urban populations of adolescents in Massachusetts. The research team is led by James Kitts (Sociology) and John Sirard (Kinesiology) with collaborators Krista Gile (Mathematics & Statistics), Mark Pachucki (Sociology), and Lindiwe Sibeko (Nutrition). This team will study friendship and health behavior among students in four middle schools from 6th to 8th grade, allowing researchers to observe the interplay of the social environment and health behaviors over three years.

The research team will use cutting edge statistical models to rigorously analyze patterns of friendships and health behaviors. They will then develop computer models to simulate how these processes may operate differently in a range of school environments. These models will be integrated into a publicly-available tool for school administrators, care providers, and those interested in adolescent wellness to explore potential intervention scenarios on health behaviors and adolescent health in schools.

This cross-campus collaboration was organized through the Computational Social Science Institute (CSSI) and is funded by a five-year 3.1 million dollar grant from the National Institutes of Health. Pilot research was supported by seed grants from the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and the Department of Kinesiology.