Social Media vs. the Obesity Epidemic, Part 5

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Reports come and reports go, and sometimes one of them makes a big impact, like the scientific statement issued in December by the American Heart Association and published in the journal Circulation. The Duke University Medical Center research team studied “Internet-based interventions to lose weight, increase physical activity and improve eating habits,” and discovered, for starters, that the saturation point has almost been reached. Of American youth between 12 and 17 years of age, a walloping 95% now have Internet access.

Chair of the writing group was Dr. Jennifer S. Li, division chief of pediatric cardiology at Duke, and like most publications, Science Codex quoted her extensively:

Online communication and social media are an increasing part of our lives and our overall social network of family, friends and peers. Healthcare providers should embrace its potential as a tool for promoting healthy behavioral change. The studies we looked at suggest that more parental involvement and more interaction with counselors and peers was associated with greater success rates for overweight children and teens who participated in an online intervention.

In other words, the face-to-face or voice-to-voice human interaction is needed, along with the online materials. The study showed that the difference between success and the lack of it depends on variables, one of which is some kind of relationship with a counselor or mentor or a group of peers — a computer program is not enough; there needs to be “somebody out there.”

And, of course, as with anything else, practice makes perfect. The frequency of logging in and using useful programs is directly related to positive results.

One of the variables is family involvement. This doesn’t necessarily have to overlap with the online activity. For instance, if a child bares her or his soul in an anonymous bulletin board environment like Weigh2Rock, for the parents to read it would be 180 degrees contrary to the whole point of an anonymous group. But the family could be involved in helping the kid earn enough to buy a smartphone.

Larry Husten, editorial director of WebMD professional news, also took notice of this report, and pointed out some of the pitfalls:

However, the statement acknowledges that the evidence so far from published social-media intervention studies has been ‘mixed’ and that social media is also associated with troublesome drawbacks… [T]he statement cautions that ‘identifying and measuring outcomes would be difficult.’

There are admittedly “few randomized trials” available to support total commitment to a dependence on social media, although the signs are promising. Still, Dr. Li advises that doctors and other health care professionals are a lot better off understanding technology and its potentialities than not. Husten continues:

As an example of the delicate balance required in this area, the statement notes that children prefer texting over traditional paper diaries, but it also warns that social media plays a role in cyber bullying, privacy issues, sexting, and internet addiction.

At the same time, greater involvement in human social networks is probably a good thing, as long as it’s not intrusive. Maybe it takes a village to lose some pounds.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Social media may help fight childhood obesity,” Science Codex, 12/03/12
Source: “Scientific Statement Examines Role Of Social Media In Fighting Childhood Obesity,” Forbes, 12/03/12
Image by Oneras (Mario Antonio Pena Zapateria).

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