Several recent studies and initiatives suggest that social media could be a useful tool in helping prevent the spread of childhood obesity, according to a scientific statement from the American Heart Association (AHA) published online today in the journal Circulation.
Nearly 95 percent of adolescents ages 12 to 17 have Internet access, according to the AHA statement, and most are involved in some sort of social networking, from Facebook and Twitter to Tumblr, YouTube, and LinkedIn.
"Online communication and social media are an increasing part of our lives and our overall social network of family, friends, and peers," said Dr. Jennifer S. Li, chair of the writing group, in a statement. "Health-care providers should embrace its potential as a tool for promoting healthy behavioral change."
Li and her colleagues examined research about Internet-based randomized trials for overweight and obese children, finding some studies that reported improvement. One factor that did noticeably affect the success rate of the interventions was the so-called "attrition rate," or how often a participant would log in to use the social network.
According to previous research, people often gravitate toward friends with similar characteristics, both internally and physically. Athletes tend to befriend other athletes, and likewise, overweight and obese students will often hang around each other.
This makes social networks that much more valuable a tool to utilize in an effort to curb childhood obesity, according to the statement.
"Some research shows that even in virtual social networks, people tend to associate with others like themselves," Li said. "So if you develop a network of kids who are overweight, you can have an impact on all of them—in the real world and online—because if one starts making healthy changes, the others will be influenced to do so as well."
Let's give a couple of quick examples here. Say you and a grand majority of your friends are overweight or obese. Imagine that one of those friends decides to lose some weight by getting into a running routine and begins documenting that process on Twitter. (Hashtag #RunClub?) If that person started dramatically shedding pounds, wouldn't you suddenly feel motivated to give running a try, too?
Or, say you're on Pinterest. You could go looking for the most delicious chocolate-cheesecake recipe you can find, but that's not going to help anyone stay skinny this holiday season. Instead, someone looking to lose a little weight could go digging into a healthy recipe section, then re-pin some of those recipes to a board of his or her own that friends could peruse.
Of course, exposing adolescents to social media, especially in that age range, can be risky. Cyberbullies aren't exactly rare these days, and teens can also get involved in sexual experimentation (such as sexting) or be confronted with Internet addiction, the AHA statement says.
"Doctors need to understand digital technology better so that they can offer guidance to patients and their families on avoiding such issues, and will be aware of any such problems that occur," Li said.
She and her colleagues push for more research into finding the most effective interventions involving adolescents' social networking that can help turn the tide against childhood obesity. In the end, no matter what any adults say about the risks of obesity as a youth, it's always going to come down to a youth's decision of whether to stay a healthy weight.
If peers on Facebook, Twitter, and God knows where else these days are the ones encouraging healthy eating and staying active, that peer reinforcement could be the driving force that could help stem the rise of youth obesity.
Just last month, the AHA announced a collaborative effort with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation aimed at reversing the U.S. childhood-obesity epidemic by 2015.
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