Characterizing Social Networks and Communication Channels in a Web-Based Peer Support Intervention

Cyberpsychol Behav Soc Netw. 2016 Jun;19(6):388-96. doi: 10.1089/cyber.2015.0359.


Web and mobile (mHealth) interventions have promise for improving health outcomes, but engagement and attrition may be reducing effect sizes. Because social networks can improve engagement, which is a key mechanism of action, understanding the structure and potential impact of social networks could be key to improving mHealth effects. This study (a) evaluates social network characteristics of four distinct communication channels (discussion board, chat, e-mail, and blog) in a large social networking intervention, (b) predicts membership in online communities, and (c) evaluates whether community membership impacts engagement. Participants were 299 cancer survivors with significant distress using the 12-week intervention. Social networking attributes (e.g., density and clustering) were identified separately for each type of network communication (i.e., discussion board, blog, web mail, and chat). Each channel demonstrated high levels of clustering, and being a community member in one communication channel was associated with being in the same community in each of the other channels (φ = 0.56-0.89, ps < 0.05). Predictors of community membership differed across communication channels, suggesting that each channel reached distinct types of users. Finally, membership in a discussion board, chat, or blog community was strongly associated with time spent engaging with coping skills exercises (Ds = 1.08-1.84, ps < 0.001) and total time of intervention (Ds = 1.13-1.80, ps < 0.001). mHealth interventions that offer multiple channels for communication allow participants to expand the number of individuals with whom they are communicating, create opportunities for communicating with different individuals in distinct channels, and likely enhance overall engagement.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Blogging
  • Communication
  • Counseling / methods*
  • Electronic Mail
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Internet
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms / psychology
  • Residence Characteristics
  • Social Behavior*
  • Social Networking*
  • Social Support*
  • Survivors / psychology*
  • Telemedicine