The Structure and Function of Social Networks
Access to social networks varies between individuals. Social networks facilitate bonding between people. This support may affect health directly or indirectly, and either positively or negatively. Direct effects occur through their impact on stress levels, self-esteem, exercise, sexual activity, or the utilization of health services. Furthermore, bonding relationships influence health indirectly, through their effect on the social, economic, political, and environmental considerations of health. When people do not conform to the group norms, they are excluded from accessing the social capital of the network, and thus, there is little incentive to behave in the appropriate ways.
People with a high level of social capital, tend to be healthier, compared with those with lower levels of social capital. However, conforming to the group norms does not always result in positive health outcomes. In fact, conforming to some group norms may support unhealthy behaviors. For example, a woman may be enduring sexual harassment in the workplace, but be reluctant to take the appropriate action, for fear of losing her job or being blacklisted within a network. If social capital is a scarce resource, substance use may function as an alternative coping behavior in the presence of stress since it produces relaxation.
Thus individuals with a low level of social capital may be less likely to handle stress and therefore, become more inclined to resort to substance use. Socially isolated individuals are more likely to engage in various health-damaging behaviors, such as smoking, and drinking. An individual with a large social network, is more monitored and controlled, compared to an individual with no or a small social network. In addition, the social network may facilitate the diffusion of health-related information and adopt norms regarding health-related behavior. Healthy norms tend to be reinforced in social networks.