Social media may play a role in helping children overcome obesity, according to an American Heart Association (AHA) scientific statement. Health care professionals are encouraged to use the statement and its recommendations as a tool for promoting healthy behavioral change.
Any successful approach to addressing the burden of obesity must not rely solely on the health care system, the statement suggested. Efforts should include implementing policies that account for the physical and social environment to change the eating and activity behaviors of children and their families. Strong associations between participation in social networks and preventive health behavior are underscored by research, it was noted.
Building on a recent AHA statement directed at adult weight management strategies that focused on Internet-based technologies, the statement provides an overview of social networks and their relationship to health and obesity and describes social network–based interventions. It also reviews specific intervention strategies for obesity that rely on various forms of social media and offers recommendations for future directions.
General steps to take and key components of childhood obesity interventions targeting social networks recommended in the AHA statement include the following:
• Define the goal of the intervention. Identify what needs to be improved, expectations for the effectiveness of the intervention, and how to measure change.
• Identify the social network based on the goal of the intervention. This may involve using an existing network or developing new ones.
• Develop the intervention and pilot test it to identify how it will interact with the social network. In testing, use mixed-methods techniques to evaluate the potential benefits and harms of the intervention.
• Implement the intervention. Be sure to assess the impact of the intervention carefully, including both process and outcome measures, and to revise activities to minimize harm. Pay careful attention to future sustainability.
• Spread the intervention—social network projects are uniquely well suited to the spread of innovation.
More evidence is needed to support specific strategies for incorporating collaborative approaches for weight management, the statement noted.
Variables that influence childhood obesity intervention success include whether the rest of the family is involved, the degree of back-and-forth communication and feedback with a counselor or support group, and the frequency with which children and adolescents log on and use the programs. Because about 95% of 12- to 17-year-old children have Internet access at home or in school, online social network health interventions should be explored for preventing or managing excessive weight, it was noted.
The statement pointed out that social media have downsides, including exposure to cyber bullying, privacy issues, sexting, and Internet addiction that can cause sleep deprivation. Doctors are encouraged to gain a better understanding of digital technology so that they can offer guidance to patients and their families on avoiding these problems.
The statement authors recommended that clinicians, policy makers, and researchers ensure privacy protection, monitor outcomes, and harness the strength of a health promotion social network to devise interventions that initiate and sustain behavior changes, such as self-monitoring, goal-setting, and problem-solving.
The statement was published online in the AHA’s journal Circulation.