Research Article: Cascades of emotional support in friendship networks and adolescent smoking

Date Published: June 29, 2017

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Cynthia M. Lakon, Cheng Wang, Carter T. Butts, Rupa Jose, John R. Hipp, Jacobus P. van Wouwe.


Social support from peers and parents provides a key socialization function during adolescence. We examine adolescent friendship networks using a Stochastic Actor-Based modeling approach to observe the flow of emotional support provision to peers and the effect of support from parents, while simultaneously modeling smoking behavior. We utilized one school (n = 976) from The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (AddHealth) Study. Our findings suggest that emotional support is transacted through an interdependent contextual system, comprised of both peer and parental effects, with the latter also having distal indirect effects from youths’ friends’ parents.

Partial Text

Studies over recent decades indicate the vital role social support plays in health [1–3]. Social support serves varied functions for health and health behavior, with emotional support generally extending to intimacy, attachment, and the ability to confide in and rely on someone, all of which contribute to feeling cared for [4]. Emotional support is one of the most relevant and yet most complex domains of social support for health, as it is related to both salutary [5] and adverse health outcomes [2,6–8].

Our findings are consistent with the idea that emotional support diffuses through relational interdependencies in adolescent peer networks, a system which is also affected by the broader context of not only the peer network, but also the perceived support from youths’ parents and that support which their peers perceive from their own parents. Taken together, these findings suggest that emotional support is transacted through an interdependent contextual system, comprised of both peer and parental effects, with the latter also having distal indirect effects onto youths’ friends. The provision of support to peers depended on numerous network properties, including the number of people youth provide support to, and whether or not support is reciprocated. Findings also suggest a hierarchical, unidirectional, flow of support provision, given the effects of transitive triplets and 3-cycles. The findings suggest some youth may act as sources of support, while others receive considerably more than they give, and in a non-linear fashion. We also observed homophily effects in the provision of support, with youth providing support to others in the same grade and of the same gender. Moreover, we observed evidence that parental emotional support was important: adolescents provided more support to peers if they received more emotional support from their own parent or to peers who received more support from their own parent. This is consistent with literature indicating that youth who have received support from their own parents are able to provide support to their friends [9,11]. We also observed a selection effect for support provision, indicating that youth had a tendency to provide emotional support to those who smoked at similar levels. Concurrently, we found that peer influence affected smoking, with youth being more likely to mimic the smoking behavior of peers who provide them emotional support. Moreover, we observed a positive relationship between a parental home environment favoring smoking and smoking behavior, mirroring past studies [31]. We also found that youth exhibiting depressive symptoms were more likely to smoke. Overall, our findings suggest a social milieu in which support provision cascades through network structures, in a hierarchical and transitive fashion, interdependently with parental support effects, which work through both direct and indirect pathways.

In sum, this study investigated the coevolving processes of emotional support provision and smoking behavior among adolescent youth in one school. We found evidence that emotional support provision diffuses through key network structures, including transitive triads. We also found evidence that some youth serve disproportionately as providers and other youth as receivers of emotional support. Our findings also suggest that youths’ parents and peers play a vital role in youths’ capacities to provide support to others. Regarding smoking behavior, our findings suggest the merit of considering whether a tie is emotionally supportive and may act as a conduit for diffusing peer influence on smoking behavior. We also observed that the parental home smoking environment is a critical factor shaping smoking among youth, with parental home environments condoning smoking increasing smoking behavior among these youth. Overall, our findings suggest that emotional support provision cascades through a social system consisting of friends, parents, and youths’ friends’ parents, and one in which some youth disproportionately support other youth.




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