Smartphones as a Public Health Tool

A person’s social network is often multifaceted, evolving and, research suggests, also closely tied to their personal health.

But the complex interactions that occur within social groups and how these ultimately influence and then affect one’s health have not been thoroughly studied.

To better understand this relationship, researchers at the School of Public Health are turning to modern technology—in the form of smartphones—to monitor the flow of information among dozens of people and how this influences health outcomes such as substance abuse and sexually transmitted diseases.

The study will focus on existing social networks in three New Haven neighborhoods—consisting of a total of 120 men ranging in age from 18 to 25 years old—and follow their cell phone activity over a period of several months.

Participants will agree to allow their cell phones to be tracked by the research team led by Trace Kershaw, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Chronic Disease Epidemiology. Each participant’s physical location will be tracked through global positioning and a Mobile Spy monitoring software that interfaces with the phones will register all incoming and outgoing calls and also text messages. All of the data that is collected will be strictly confidential and protected.

“Cell phones have made it easier to maintain and develop network ties. Network members can be reached at any time and location and this fosters interactions among network members,” Kershaw said the study, which is expected to start this fall and run for about two years. “The nature of how this communication flows and how it relates to network characteristics and risk within networks will allow us to develop communication technology delivered peer interventions by suggesting the most effective modes, frequency and patterns of information delivery.”

Each of the three social networks will start with a single individual and then his friends will be recruited and then their friends until a group has 40 active members. Participants will also provide detailed information at the start of the study on their level of sexually risky behavior and drug use.

Kershaw said that cell phones and mobile technology have not been used to their full potential as public health research tools and, he believes, this is one of the first studies that will use phones to track personal communications and locations. The study should help to determine the usefulness of cell phones in understanding social networks, which could have broad implications for future public health research.

Kershaw said that the information will be used to create health interventions that target specific peer groups.

The study is funded with a $453,750 grant from the National Institutes of Health.

This article was submitted by Denise Meyer on August 14, 2012.