Facebook and Twitter hold promise in the fight against childhood obesity, according to the American Heart Association. But more research is needed to understand how best to use the social media tools.
Research has drawn strong ties between social networks and preventative health behavior, and roughly 95 percent of teens aged 12 to 17 have Internet access and are active in online social media.
However, the limited amount of work done with Internet-based obesity interventions has provided little in the way of solid, reproducible results, the American Heart Association wrote in a scientific statement published Monday in the journal Circulation.
"Future work should address whether engagement within a social network either increases the effectiveness of these interventions or promotes greater sustainability," Dr. Jennifer Li, division chief of pediatric cardiology at Duke University, and others wrote in the statement.
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The authors examined eight Internet-based randomized trials that reported weight loss, BMI change, physical activity, and dietary intake as outcomes.
Six suffered from small sample size and results varied in success. Two larger studies -- one with 359 adolescent girls and another with nearly 3,000 middle school students -- also showed varying results.
"In summary, findings from these studies have been mixed, with some finding improvement," the statement read. "Furthermore, there was variable use of the Internet-based interventions, raising questions about the degree to which the interventions led to meaningful virtual social networks."
The research shouldn't be abandoned because of the mixed results but should be amplified and targeted to answer more specific questions, the authors wrote.
The statement suggested clinicians, policymakers, and researchers consider flexible models for behavior change that use social media and networks "and determine how the use of social networks and social media applies to each of these elements of behavior change."
Larger studies including those that use technologically based interventions are needed, they wrote. The larger samples will determine the impact of social media on subsets of populations.
Specific features of interventions also need more examination rather than the technology platform. Researchers also need to study the treatment of obesity and maintenance of appropriate weight once weight loss is achieved.
If it were possible to leverage social network technology, it could prove to be powerful in the fight against childhood obesity, they wrote.
"Those who are interested in public health or in providing medical care will likely see social media become a powerful and perhaps dominant communication tool of the 21st century," the statement read.
For example, developing a social network specifically to address obesity similar to the model used in the Weight Watchers program might be effective. "Little is known about the effectiveness of these programs in children or adolescents or whether parental involvement has spillover beneficial effects for obesity prevention or treatment in children," the statement said.
E-mail and texting interventions -- while not Internet-based or social media-related -- have also shown value in weight-loss interventions. The same can be said of active video games such as Nintendo Wii Fit and Microsoft Kinect.
"Text messaging may be especially useful for self-monitoring because of the potential for providing both support and immediate feedback based on a patient's specific goals," the authors wrote.