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Social Media Is the Next Intervention for Childhood Obesity

Social media has the potential to be extremely useful in weight-oriented interventions for obese children and teens.

--by Nina Lincoff An overweight child on the computer

The Gist

Childhood obesity is a serious illness affecting children who have a higher body mass index (BMI) score than 95 percent of their peers. Not only are obese children at greater risk for developing chronic health problems, such as heart disease and diabetes, but the mental ramifications of childhood obesity can range from lack of self-confidence to severe depression.

In the social media age, however, there may be new tools to help children overcome obesity. A statement released by the American Heart Association suggests that health care providers should embrace and develop social media tools as part of a healthy weight plan to combat childhood obesity. Because nearly 95 percent of 12- to 17-year old children have access to the Internet, online health interventions may be the best way to reach out to and support obese and overweight children.

The Expert Take

Considering the widespread availability and use of social media, it’s surprising that there are relatively few studies concerning the use of these technologies to combat childhood obesity, says study author Jennifer Li, M.D. 

“This will be important in the future because these technologies are the predominant communication tools of this era,” said Li.

Children and teens are spending more time online than ever before, and their social landscapes are changing. By adapting to and adopting these technological changes, it’s possible for clinicians, parents, nutritionists, and children themselves to use social media and technology to maintain a healthier weight.

Li hopes that “parents will see these technologies as a way to help with lifestyle intervention, but it is very important that they monitor their children's online activity to make sure that that problems do not arise.” Cyber bullying, privacy issues, and internet addiction are all aspects of an Internet-connected life that can have a detrimental affect on children and teens.

That said, Li has a simple hope for children struggling with obesity: that “they will try to get engaged in a program to become more heart-healthy with their friends.”

In the future, says Li, studies seeking incentives to engage children and teenagers in long-term healthy lifestyles should be tailored to specific characteristics like age, ethnicity, location, and socio-economic status.

The Takeaway

By synthesizing multiple studies, researchers found that their target group—obese children—could use social networks to reach out to peers they feel comfortable interacting with and receiving emotional support from. The efficacy of an online social network will, however, be affect by the role of the built environment—the spaces inside and outside of the family home.

“People in general tend to associate with those similar to themselves in terms of interests or habits, both in real life and online,” says Li, which means that even if the relationship is built virtually, obese and overweight children are likely to associate with those who share similar interests. This can create a non-threatening environment in which to expose children to health and weight-loss interventions.

Although social media offers a new avenue to combat childhood obesity, crucial aspects of children's outside environment will still play a key role in efficacy, including parental intervention and clinician support.

Source & Method

Researchers aggregated the results of studies that examined many different social media pathways, from email and texting to online forums to video game play with online capacity (think Nintendo Wii Fit and Microsoft Kinect).

Other Research

A report from the Mayo Clinic published earlier this year states that while social media has grown exponentially and has great potential to impact engagement and education, direct, face-to-face patient and doctor interactions have become more rare in the health care space.

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Tags: Awareness , Latest Studies & Research , Technology

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The Healthline Editorial team writes about the latest health news, policy, and research.