Social Networking and Obesity, Part 1

Computer Desk

The overall mission of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project is to explore the impact of the Internet on children, families, and communities. Last month, they released the report “Social networking sites and our lives.” The 85-page PDF file is subtitled, “How people’s trust, personal relationships, and civic and political involvement are connected to their use of social networking sites and other technologies.” The authors are Lee Rainie and Kristen Purcell, of the Pew Internet Project, and two from the University of Pennsylvania, Keith N. Hampton and Lauren Sessions Goulet.

How can these technologies help people with seemingly insurmountable challenges in their lives? We particularly want to know what they can do for children and teens who suffer from obesity and food dependence. This study is chiefly concerned with Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, and Twitter, and there is a big drawback, from our admittedly prejudiced point of view: No kids. It’s all about people 18 and over, but the important factors apply across the board.

For instance, people who use social networking sites (SNS) are more trusting than those who don’t. They really do find emotional support and companionship. The researchers devised a scoring system to measure how much total support people derive from these interactions, and reached some surprising conclusions, such as:

For Facebook users, the additional boost is equivalent to about half the total support that the average American receives as a result of being married or cohabitating with a partner.

Other findings, for instance, may not apply to the average young person whose support network is Dr. Pretlow’s Weigh2Rock website. For the average Facebook user, the vast majority of online friends are also known in real life. Only 7% of their Facebook friends are never-met strangers. Weigh2Rock users are probably all strangers to each other. The whole point is anonymous discussion, partly because the subject of obesity is so emotionally loaded and embarrassing, but often because there is nobody in the children’s or teenagers’ real life they feel they can talk to. Slightly less than half of the Weigh2Rock kids have asked their parents for help with their weight.

In another poll, 19% said, “I don’t want anyone to know being overweight really bothers me.” To the question, “Have you ever talked to someone about your weight problem?,” 53% of the respondents said they had talked with a parent, friend, or counselor, but 47% checked the answer, “I am alone with my weight problem.” These are the ones who really need an online support group. To the question, “Are chat rooms helpful to you for losing weight?,” 64% said yes.

Surprisingly, the Pew survey showed that Facebook users tend to be much more politically engaged than users of other SNS, or than Americans who have nothing to do with SNS. This is very helpful for those who want to band together and take action by, for instance, banning sweet drinks from schools. Contrary to what some doomsayers would have us believe, Internet users and especially SNS users are more involved in their real-life communities than non-Internet users. This is measured by the number who belong to local community groups — whether social, sports, political, or whatever.

Fortunately, this most recent study is not the only one Pew ever conducted. There is information about the teen demographic, the 12 to 17-year-olds, elsewhere in their files. “Trend Data for Teens” tells us that 93% of American teenagers use the Internet, and almost 1/3 of them look for information on health, dieting, and physical fitness. More importantly, 17% seek out information “about a health topic that is hard to talk about, like drug use, sexual health, or depression.” Obesity and food addiction certainly fall within that category!

Susannah Fox writes:

… [O]nline resources, including advice from peers, are a significant source of health information in the U.S. As broadband and mobile access spreads, more people have the ability — and increasingly, the habit — of sharing what they are doing or thinking. In health care this translates to people tracking their workout routines, posting reviews of their medical treatments, and raising awareness about certain health conditions. These are not yet mainstream activities, but there are pockets of highly-engaged patients and caregivers who are taking an active role in tracking and sharing what they have learned.

Regarding the whole online population, of all ages, we find the astonishing fact that eight out of 10 Internet users have looked for health information online. Many people report that the Internet has a concrete, meaningful impact on “the way they care for themselves or for others.”

The “for others” part of that sentence inspires us with hope. Why? Because, while it is great that children and teens who struggle with obesity can find camaraderie and peer empathy, it is even more wonderful to know that parents can be influenced by what they find online. If the hearts and minds of enough parents can be won today, it will definitely reduce the number of kids needing online support groups tomorrow.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Social networking sites and our lives,” PewInternet.org, 06/16/11
Source: “Trend Data for Teens,” PewInternet.org
Source: “The Social Life of Health Information, 2011,” PewInternet.org, 05/12/11
Image by alexkerhead, used under its Creative Commons license.

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