Another tool in the battle against childhood obesity may be careful selection of who a child plays with after school. Vanderbilt’s Sabina Gesell, Ph.D., research assistant professor of Pediatrics, is first author of a study published in the online version of the journal Pediatrics that examines the group effect of peers on activity levels of children in after-school programs.
Eighty children, ages 5 to 12, were observed in their 12-week after-school programs. The programs allowed children to interact with different peer groups throughout the day. Participants wore a pager-like device called an accelerometer, which detects activity intensity levels over time. The children were observed and were asked to list the friends they “hung out with” the most.
“We found that children in this age group are six times more likely to do what their friends do regarding activity levels. In fact, a group of four to five peers has a significant influence on any individual child regardless of their usual activity level,” Gesell said.
The results showed more active groups tended to draw a child into greater activity levels, while groups that gravitated toward sedentary activities brought an individual child’s levels down.
“The average activity level of the group is what influences an individual child. Children are constantly adjusting their activity levels to match the peer group,” Gesell said.
The researchers also examined whether children preferentially select groups based on activity level, perhaps choosing peers whose levels were similar to their own, but surprisingly, they found no such association. Children might choose friends with other similarities, but activity levels did not seem to be a factor.
Gesell said this is exciting because after-care programs are under increasing pressure to get children to be more active. Adjusting the makeup of playgroups to place children at risk for obesity into groups with an activity level that is higher than their own is likely to influence them to be more active too.
“If you look at childhood obesity efforts across the country, many have failed to look at social context. It is important that we look at all the forces in play and streamline our efforts to have a maximal impact,” Gesell said.
This research was supported by the Vanderbilt Institute for Obesity and Metabolism, the Vanderbilt Clinical and Translational Science Award (NIH), the National Centers for Research Resources and Advancing Translational Services, and the American Heart Association. Other authors of this paper are Eric Tesdahl, M.S., and Eileen Ruchman, B.A.