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Boys may actually be more cliquey than girls, study finds

A new study led by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) has found that boys may be more cliquey than girls when it comes to social networks in school. The researchers found that social groups are influenced by factors such as timetable and location, and that boys tend to form the tightest-knit groups.

Mathematical models of infectious disease often play an important role in public health planning, such as determining effective vaccination strategies. The social mixing patterns of children are recognized as being particularly important to these models because they represent a group that is at a higher risk for the transmission of diseases. This means it is critical to understand how children socialize and interact at school, where they typically socialize the most.

The investigation, which also involved researchers from the University of Cambridge, was focused on the features and structure of children’s social networks within different schools. The team surveyed the self-reported contacts of 460 seventh graders across four schools in the UK over a five month period.

Over 1,200 surveys were completed, and students reported who they spent the most time with, among other contact information. In most of the schools, children were found to have well-defined patterns of interaction. In one particular school, however, the children interacted more widely.

Over the course of five months, there were only small differences reported regarding individual contacts and social networks. This finding suggests that children who are well-connected and children who are not tend to stay this way. The study also revealed that males had a bigger tendency to cluster together in all of the unisex schools surveyed.

“Previous studies have typically looked at social interactions over a single day, so there has been limited information available on how much variation there might be in social mixing patterns over time in schools,” said study lead author Dr. Adam Kucharski.

“Showing boys are potentially more cliquey than girls, perhaps going against gender stereotypes, and that popular children remain popular over time, is an interesting social insight but for mathematical modellers this type of information is also extremely valuable.”

“Understanding age-specific social mixing patterns is vital for studying outbreaks of infectious diseases like flu and measles which can spread rapidly, particularly among children. It’s useful to find that mixing patterns are fairly consistent, as this suggests it will be easier to analyse social interactions among children than was previously thought. It also shows the value of working directly with schools to study these questions.”

The research is published in the journal PLOS ONE.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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