Social media such as Facebook may provide a new way to combat childhood obesity, a new scientific statement from the American Heart Association says.
"Online communication and social media are an increasing part of our lives and our overall social network of family, friends and peers," Dr. Jennifer Li, chair of the statement writing group, said in an AHA news release. "Healthcare providers should embrace its potential as a tool for promoting healthy behavioral change."
She and her colleagues reviewed studies that examined the use of Internet-based programs to help children lose weight, get more exercise, and improve their eating habits.
"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," said Li, division chief of pediatric cardiology at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C.
The statement was published online Dec. 3 in the journal Circulation.
Because of the serious health risks associated with obesity, the heart association says today's children could be the first generation to live shorter lives than their parents.
Research shows that people who are overweight or obese tend to share a home or spend their leisure time 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," Li said.
Since about 95 percent of 12-to 17-year-olds in the United States have Internet access at home and/or school, the effectiveness of using online social network health programs to combat childhood obesity should be explored, the researchers said.
"Some research shows that even in virtual social networks, people tend to associate with others like themselves," Li said. "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."