Mental health and social networks in early adolescence: A dynamic study of objectively-measured social interaction behaviors.

MC Pachucki, EJ Ozer, A Barrat, C Cattuto


How are social interaction dynamics associated with mental health during early stages of adolescence? The goal of this study is to objectively measure social interactions and evaluate the roles that multiple aspects of the social environment (such as physical activity and food choice) may jointly play in shaping the structure of children's relationships and their mental health. The data in this study are drawn from a longitudinal network-behavior study conducted in 2012 at a private K-8 school in an urban setting in California. We recruited a highly complete network sample of sixth-graders (n=40, 91% of grade, mean age=12.3), and examined how two measures of distressed mental health (self-esteem and depressive symptoms) are positionally distributed in an early adolescent interaction network. We ascertained how distressed mental health shapes the structure of relationships over a three-month period, adjusting for relevant dimensions of the social environment. Cross-sectional analyses of interaction networks revealed that self-esteem and depressive symptoms are differentially stratified by gender. Specifically, girls with more depressive symptoms have interactions consistent with social inhibition, while boys' interactions suggest robustness to depressive symptoms. Girls higher in self-esteem tended towards greater sociability. Longitudinal network behavior models indicate that gender similarity and perceived popularity are influential in the formation of social ties. Greater school connectedness predicts the development of self-esteem, though social ties contribute to more self-esteem improvement among students who identify as European-American. Cross-sectional evidence shows associations between distressed mental health and students' network peers. However, there is no evidence that connected students' mental health status becomes more similar in their over time because of their network interactions. These findings suggest that mental health during early adolescence may be less subject to mechanisms of social influence than network research in even slightly older adolescents currently indicates.

Social Science & Medicine
May, 2015