Social Networking as an Oral Health Strategy

Researchers at Boston University have been investigating how social networks impact oral health. Their recent study involved women residents of public housing developments in Boston. In this study the term, “social networks” refers to “webs of social relationships formed by interconnected people” and not the digital form of social networking.1

Strategies for Intervention

One of the study’s authors, Brenda Heaton, PhD, MPH, an associate professor in the Department of Health Policy and Health Services Research at the Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine and the Department of Epidemiology at the School of Public Health at Boston University, has long sought to understand the role social networks play in the development of behavioral risk factors impacting chronic disease, focusing on oral health. Funded by the National Institutes of Health, Heaton aims to develop oral health intervention strategies through behavioral intervention at the social network level.2

A previous study in 2008 showed that in response to motivational, one-on-one interviewing regarding how women in public housing care for their children’s oral health, behaviors might change — but only temporarily.2

Networking in the Flesh

Social networks significantly impact health-related behavioral change. The researchers in the current study posit that such connections may help to address health disparities. In fact, they suggest that behavioral interventions focused only the individual are likely to fail if social network influences are not considered.1

To determine the degree of influence social networks and their characteristics have over various oral health-related outcomes, the researchers studied public housing residents from two developments, evaluating the outcomes under a statistical modeling program. The study population comprised 18- to 55-year-old English- and Spanish-speaking women from 190 households per development.

Mapping Social Connections

Some study participants represented second and third generations of a family living in the same unit. It appeared those close connections were a primary influence on behavior. Heaton decided that she needed to explore those networks to make any headway in intervention.2

Since 2008, Heaton’s team has interviewed close to 200 women living in Boston public housing and identified nearly 1,000 individuals who were influential. She is also mapping networks to find similarities in how information flows through these communities.

The ultimate goal is to use the map to introduce health information and resources into a community in ways that change long-term behaviors. The researchers believe their findings may be beneficial in the development of policy solutions and oral health interventions in at-risk populations. They contend that through using social networks to seed messaging about oral health, oral health disparities may be reduced.


  1. Heaton B, Bond JC, Bae J, Pullen E. Modeling social network influences on oral health outcomes among women living in public housing. JDR Clin Trans Res. 2024;9:42-51.
  2. Evans I. Mapping a path to better oral health. The Brink.
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