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Ostracism May Contribute to Students' Lack of Physical Activity

Children who are intentionally excluded from activities tend to engage in less physical activity and more sedentary behaviors, according to a study published today in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

While negative peer interactions have long been linked to lower levels of physical activity in children, this was the first study to examine how simulated ostracism would affect children's physical-activity levels. Most previous research focused on peer victimization instead of intentional exclusion, according to the study.

In the study, 19 children (11 boys, eight girls) between the ages of 8 and 12 participated in two separate experimental sessions, which were ordered randomly. In both sessions, the children played a computer-based ball-tossing game called Cyberball, and were told they were playing with two other children over the Internet.

In reality, a computer controlled the other two characters on screen. In one session, the computer deliberately included the participant—who'd receive the ball 33 percent of the time—while in the other, the computer ignored (ostracized) the player after he or she had received the ball twice.

After playing Cyberball in the ostracized condition, players "have reliably reported greater negative feelings, having less control of their emotions, and having less of a sense of belonging to a group."

"Ostracism threatens an individual's need to belong and also produces psychological and physiologic responses that are indicative of a stress response," the authors write.

Once the children completed each of their Cyberball sessions, the researchers brought them to a room filled with physical-activity equipment, along with sedentary activities such as crosswords, magazines, and word searches. The children were given 30 minutes to participate in any of these activities, which the researchers monitored, and were asked to rate how much they enjoyed the session.

Children who came from the ostracized situation spent 41 percent more time on the sedentary activities than their peers who came from the inclusion session. The ostracized children also accumulated 22 percent fewer accelerometer counts than children from the included condition.

"This suggests that experiencing ostracism has an immediate negative impact on children's choice to be physically active," the authors write.

They suggest considering the effects of adverse social interactions when examining obesity to "further our understanding of physical and behavioral health trajectories."

The study, "The Effect of Simulated Ostracism on Physical Activity Behavior in Children," was published as an online-first article. It comes from the March 2012 print issue of Pediatrics.

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