Influence and the Young

Schwanz and Her Melon

Childhood Obesity News has been examining the influence of friends on childhood obesity. The concept that social networks impact individual behavior is not exactly hot off the presses. That’s why, for instance, the Eating Disorder Referral and Information Center mentions four helpful modalities: cognitive-behavioral therapy, medications, self-help groups, and interpersonal psychotherapy, the last being described as:

Method in which the client is taught to examine their relationships with friends and family and to make changes in problem areas.

Claire Bates pondered the question of whether overweight kids tend to hang out together, and whether they become overweight because of associating with peers who habitually overeat. Those questions of “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” are never easy to determine, but it does seem clear that social influence “tends to operate more in detrimental directions, especially for BMI.”

That last phrase was borrowed from Dr. David Shoham, in regard to a Loyola University study that looked at the Body Mass Index measurements of peers in high school. The journalist takes care to remind readers that the study was performed more than 10 years ago, when childhood obesity rates were lower, and online social networking was not yet ubiquitous and depended on self-reported data. It showed:

If a borderline overweight student at Jefferson High School had lean friends there was a 40 per cent chance the student’s BMI would drop in the future. However, if they had obese friends their was just a 15 per cent chance they would slim down.

A young person is more easily influenced to harmful behavior than to beneficial behavior — that is what it means to “operate more in detrimental directions,” and it has probably been true of human nature forever. The other knowledge, that “obesity and related behaviors appear to cluster in social networks,” is more useful as a possible avenue to change. Especially in a high school environment, the attitudes and actions of one charismatic kid, or of a small group, hold the potential to wield a disproportionate amount of influence.

If the natural leaders of a group can be identified and persuaded to support a cause, such as combatting obesity, that could be useful. At any rate, group dynamics are so important that one of Dr. Shoham’s conclusions was:

We should not be treating adolescents in isolation.

A much more comprehensive study of high school-age youth was the 1994 “National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health,” carried out by the University of North Carolina. It’s called longitudinal because it kept track of kids when they weren’t kids anymore, but had entered their 20s. Dr. Shoham was co-author of this report, which reporter Matt McKinney summarizes:

Shoham said he and his colleagues analyzed the data with a method known as the Stochastic actor-based model, which allowed them to compare and contrast multiple variables that influence childhood obesity. They found that while a person’s friends may affect their weight, it can also affect whom they pick as friends.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Eating Disorder Referral and Information Center,”
Source: “You’re more likely to gain weight if your friends are heavier than you,”, 07/10/12
Source: “Majority of friends overweight? You might be too,” Chicago Sun Times, 07/12/12
Image by Arbron (Jeff Hitchcock).

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