Researchers: Facebook could be key to fighting childhood obesity

Researchers: Facebook could be key to fighting childhood obesity

A new study suggests that social media platforms can be used as weapons against childhood obesity.

According to a recently released statement, the American Heart Association (AHA) is confident that social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare could be used as weapons against childhood obesity. While organizations are already launching social media-based healthy eating initiatives, this is the suppport they need to continue to invest in these programs.

Social media is a great motivational tool for those who want to lose weight. ABC’s Liz Neporent described in 2011 how her use of Foursquare, a social media app that allows one to share his or her location with friends, forced her to exercise more often.

To become the Foursquare mayor of her living room, Ms. Neporent exercised, sometimes twice a day, on her elliptical machine.

“To the uninitiated, being the Foursquare mayor of a living room gym sounds like a silly waste of time,” she wrote. “Perhaps it is. But for someone as compulsive as I am, it has actually become part of what motivates me to lace up my sneakers every morning.”

Social media-based health interventions are successful because they are designed around the idea that achieving a goal is a lot easier when you are motivated by someone or something other than yourself.

“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 and division chief of pediatric cardiology at Duke University Medical Center, in the AHA statement. “Healthcare providers should embrace its potential as a tool for promoting healthy behavioral change.”

An article published recently in Prevention, described how Facebook and other social media platforms encourage friends and coworkers to challenge each other in employee wellness programs.

“The prime motivator is the social accountability we engender,” Dr. Rajiv Kumar, founder and chief medical officer of ShapeUp, told Prevention. “We believe this peer accountability, which is stronger than accountability to a faceless HR department, can be as powerful, if not more, than financial incentives.”

ShapeUp found that 30 to 50 percent of employees participate in their social media wellness program versus a normal wellness program, for which 15 percent participate.

Dr. Li’s writing group examined research on internet-based interventions to lose weight and increase physical activity among children and found that social media is a valuable weapon against childhood obesity.

The writing group discovered that several factors determined whether the internet-based interventions were successful, including whether the participant’s family was involved in the intervention, the level of back-and-forth communication and feedback with a counselor or support group and the number of times that kids logged on and participated in the programs.

Previous research reveals that overweight individuals typically share a home or hang out with others who are overweight or obese.

“Athletes tend to hang out with athletes, and overweight kids hang out together so they reinforce each other’s eating habits or preferences for recreational activities,” Dr. Li said.

However, the use of internet-based health interventions is promising because approximately 95 percent of 12- to 17-year-old kids have internet access at home or in school.

“Some research shows that even in virtual social networks, people tend to associate with others like themselves,” Dr. Li added. “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.”

There are, however, a number of downsides to using the internet for health interventions, including cyber bullying, privacy issues, sexting and internet addiction, which can lead to sleep deprivation.

“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,” Dr. Li said.

The writing group wants policy makers, doctors and researchers to look closely at the outcomes of internet-based health interventions and design others based on the goal of developing behavioral changes like self-monitoring, goal-setting and problem-solving.

In the future, the writing group would like to examine additional research to determine whether gender, ethnicity, geographic location and socioeconomic status change the success of internet-based health interventions.

“Teenagers are texting and using Facebook and other social media as their primary communication with their peers, and we need to find out what factors can be incorporated into social media that will increase the effectiveness of these interventions to initiate and maintain weight loss in kids and adolescents,” Dr. Li said.

Facebook, with one billion users as of October, has the ability fight childhood obesity. CNN Money notes that Facebook impacts one out of every seven people on the planet.

The AHA’s statement was published online in the journal Circulation.

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