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Social Media May Help Fight Childhood Obesity

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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Dec. 4, 2012 -- Kids and teens increasingly keep in touch through social media, and all that texting, tweeting, and online networking can be a powerful tool for combating childhood obesity, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

In a newly released statement, the group calls for more research to help doctors and health policy makers incorporate social media into existing obesity prevention and management programs.

“Almost all kids have Internet access and many have smartphones,” says Duke University chief of pediatric cardiology Jennifer S. Li, MD. “We need to take advantage of social networking to connect with them because it is the way they are connecting with their friends.”

Social Networking Can Fight Fat

An AHA committee led by Li evaluated the research on Internet-based interventions designed to promote weight loss, physical activity, and healthy eating.

The group concluded that the studies have been mixed, and more research is needed to develop strategies for optimizing the use of Web-based interventions in the fight against childhood obesity.

Greater involvement by parents, counselors, and peers was linked to better weight loss outcomes among overweight children and teenagers who participated in one online program, Li says.

She adds that the traditional methods of attempting weight loss, such as seeing a doctor or joining a support group, lack the immediacy of going online.

But the statement warned of potential downsides to social media, including possible exposure to cyber bullying, privacy issues, and spending too much time in front of the screen.

“Because of their limited capacity for self-regulation and susceptibility to peer pressure, adolescents can be at risk as they navigate social media,” the AHA writing group noted.

The report was published Dec. 3 online and it will appear in the Jan. 15 issue of the journal Circulation.

Half of Teens Use Social Media Daily

According to a recent survey of 13- to 17-year-olds, 9 out of 10 teens have used social media, and more than half (51%) use it daily.

Seattle pediatrician Robert Pretlow, MD, created the web site Weigh2Rock more than a decade ago to help children and teens struggling with weight issues. He says the site averages between 50,000 and 100,000 hits a month.

Last May, he discussed the potential power of social networking to help children and teens lose weight and stay active at the European Congress on Obesity in Lyon, France.

“What most kids who are overweight can’t do in the real world is talk about their weight with anyone,” he says. “They don’t talk about it at school, or with their friends, or at home because they are too embarrassed. They don’t want to call attention to it. Ever.”

He says the kids and teens who visit Weigh2Rock seem to like the anonymity of the site, which offers online forums, chat rooms, success stories, and tips for healthy eating and weight loss.

He adds that more than 99% of visitors never post on the site but are content to view the postings of others.

But that doesn’t mean that these "lurkers," as he calls them, don’t benefit.

“Kids who are overweight often feel like they are all alone,” he says. “When they go on the site and see post after post from kids who have the same experiences and problems they have had, it makes them realize this isn’t true. Even if they never post a word, this can be very powerful.”

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