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Squad2020 Study to assess first-year alcohol, drug use

Survey to research influence of peer networks on substance use among first-years

Nancy Barnett, professor of behavior and social sciences at the School of Public Health, is launching a study called Squad2020 that examines how social connections and networks among first-years at Brown are related to different health behaviors, particularly alcohol and drug use. The study explores how information about alcohol use travels within peer networks.

The project is funded by the National Institutes of Health. Participants are provided with $50, $55 and $60 for the first, second and third online surveys, respectively, which take anywhere from 30 to 40 minutes each. In addition, participants receive a $20 bonus if they complete all the surveys. The first round of surveys will be sent out mid-October.

The catchy project name, Squad2020, was selected by a student advisory group last spring comprised mostly of sophomores from diverse backgrounds and experiences, Barnett said. The direction of the study has been guided by the conversations and suggestions from this advisory group.

The study specifically targets first-year students, as they are still in the early stages of forming peer networks and make good subjects for examining how alcohol use ties into changes within these networks over time, Barnett said.

“We know that (peers) become more important than parents as a source of information and a source for modeling,” Barnett said. “Peers are the most influential when it comes to health-related topics. Social networks allow us to study those connections.”

Smaller-scale studies held in past years were used to help identify and develop the methods and scientific questions that are being explored in Squad2020. One such study entailed a cross-sectional examination of students in two dorms on campus and the relationships between network ties and substance use. In comparison, Squad2020 is a longitudinal study on a much larger scale offering answers to many more questions, Barnett added.

Matthew Meisel, a postdoctoral research fellow working on the project, said he worked on similar studies on a more modest scale during his years of graduate work.

“I did some smaller-scale social network studies, but this is really exciting because we are trying to recruit the whole entire first-year class,” Meisel said.

The study has a large presence on social media, including a Facebook page and Twitter account. The accounts are used to advertise student sign-ups through booths on campus.

Barnett attributes this heavy social media presence to the need for “as many people in the network observed as possible.” The enrollment campaign was launched with the goal of recruiting 80 to 85 percent of the Class of 2020. So far, the project has 1,132 participants, Barnett said, which is about 67 percent of the class.

Hannah Montoya ’19, a public health concentrator and one of Squad2020’s student research assistants, helps with the enrollment campaign and provides the research team with a unique perspective on undergraduate and first-year life.

“Being a sophomore and having just completed my first year here, I thought that I could play an important role in advising our research team on the first-year experience and the best ways to ensure the study will be worthwhile and successful,” Montoya said. “The other student research assistants and I help to make sure that the work we do is respectful and in the best interest of the first-year class.”

The study’s results are projected to be released in spring 2018, following analysis of the data.

Barnett said the studies are useful for understanding peer networks and alcohol use as well as for the students participating in the surveys.

“Students can learn about themselves in any survey that they take,” Barnett said. “It makes you reflect on your own thoughts and behaviors. Students who take this survey can know that they are contributing to something important that will be informative.”


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