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Measuring Social Connection

Updated: Apr 17

Earlier this year, the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released an 85-page advisory declaring loneliness a new public health epidemic and a national public health crisis. The report shows a decline in social connectedness, especially among young people, and outlines significant negative health consequences, including poor mental health, increased risk of heart disease, stroke, dementia, and premature death from all causes. Murthy states:

"Given the significant health consequences of loneliness and isolation, we must prioritize building social connection the same way we have prioritized other critical public health issues such as tobacco, obesity and substance use disorders. Together, we can build a country that’s healthier, more resilient, less lonely and more connected.”

Social connection has been shown to be a protective factor against depression, anxiety, and stress and is an important foundation to building community belonging and civic muscle, a core Vital Condition for Well-Being. In light of the Surgeon General’s declaration and the positive health effects all of us seek to gain through sufficient social connection in our communities, the Foundation for Social Connection has just launched a dynamic Action Guide for Building Socially Connected Communities. The guide supports local leaders and changemakers to build more social connection across communities.


IP3 was fortunate to partner with the Foundation to leverage IP3 ASSESS to include an embedded data dashboard that makes social connection data available for every county in the United States as part of Step 3 of the Guide - Review Data and Trends.


How can we measure social connection?

Social connection looks at the relationships, interactions, and ties that people share with others in their community, family, friends, colleagues, and broader social groups. Understanding how socially connected an individual is depends on a variety of factors including the structure, function, and quality of these relationships. Social connection is often experienced through feelings of closeness and belonging and is found through a rich social network with people who offer support in times of need, and who provide satisfying, healthy relationships.


IP3 works with many communities and organizations that are committed to increasing community belonging and civic muscle, including social connection, and other Vital Conditions for Well-Being. Our team provides data consultation to support indicator selection and sourcing, and share unique data visualizations and interpretation support through IP3 ASSESS and embeddable data dashboards.

Below we share a series of indicators that are used in the Action Guide to assess the level of social isolation in a given community. Again, all of these indicators can be viewed by any county by visiting Step 3 of Action Guide for Building Social Connected Communities. The measures offered here are exploratory—a starter list for learning together about what it takes to explore and quantify social connection in our communities.


Individual Indicators of Social Connectedness

These concepts relate to the social connection or disconnection of individuals. Nationally standardized community-level social connection data is very sparse. Local data can supplement national sources.

Measure

Definition

Source

Living Alone

Percentage of households with a householder who lives alone

Perceived Emotional and Social Support

Coming Soon

​New indicator that should be available in 2024 in the CDC PLACES dataset

Perceived Isolation

Coming Soon

New indicator that should be available in 2024 in the CDC PLACES dataset

Community Social Engagement Factors

These concepts relate to social engagement on the community level. Volunteering, civic engagement, and participation in community groups can indicate how socially connected and engaged communities are.

Measure

Definition

Source

Volunteering

Percentage of the population who participate in volunteering groups

Social Associations

Number of membership associations per 10,000 population

Policy, Systems, and Environmental Indicators

Environment, systems, and policies determined by governments and organizations within a community have a strong influence on how easy or difficult it is for individuals to be socially connected. These measures can provide insight to the places and spaces within a community where people can connect with and whether the policies governing the community are bringing people together or shifting them apart.

Measure

Definition

Source

Residential Segregation (Black/White)

​Index of dissimilarity - between 0 (complete integration) and 100 (complete segregation) - representing residential segregation between black and white county residents

School Segregation

​Index measuring the extent to which students from different race and ethnicity groups are unevenly distributed across schools, where 0 (less segregation) and 1 (more segregation)

Residential Mobility

​Percentage of renter-occupied housing units for which the householder moved in within the past year

Cultural, Arts, and Entertainment Institutions

​Number of cultural, arts, and entertainment institutions per 10,000 population

Parks

​Percentage of the population living within .5 miles of a park

Libraries

Number of libraries per 10,000 population

Computer and Internet Access

Percentage of the population in households with a computer and a broadband internet subscription

Transit Service

​​Aggregate frequency of public transit services per square mile of land area

Vehicle Access

​Percentage of households with one or more vehicles available

Importantly, while this list is likely the most comprehensive list of measures that are available for all counties across the nation, it is certainly incomplete when it comes to telling the full story of community social connection. Publicly accessible data only paint a picture with broad strokes, but when used in combination with local data and information gleaned through community engagement, the picture comes into focus, and we can begin to see how to make progress and build socially connected communities together.

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