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Kids Will Choose Time With Friends Over Food

Regular readers will recall previous posts on the important influence of social networks on behaviours and risk of weight gain.

Now a study by Sarah-Jeanne Salvy and colleagues from the State University of New York at Buffalo, NY, published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, examines whether social activities can potentially affect eating behaviours in kids.

Fifty-four (24 males and 30 females) overweight and non-overweight youth aged 9 to 11 years old were tested using a behavioral choice paradigm which involved participants coming to the laboratory for one session to work on a computer game in pairs, either together with a friend or together with a kid that they did not know. In the game, the kids could earn points exchangeable either for food or for free-play time – as a result of the study design, the play time would either be with their friend or with the unfamiliar kid.

For half of the sample, during the game, the cost of food points increased, while the cost of time playing with another child remained constant. For the other half of the sample, the cost of points for social play increased, while the cost of food points remained constant.

When matched with an unfamiliar kid, the participants substituted food for social activities when the cost of social time with an increased and substituted food for social activities when the cost of food increased – in other words, the kids chose whatever was easier to get.

In contrast, when interacting with a friend, participants did not substitute food for social interactions irrespective of wether or not the choices became easier or difficult.

The results of this experiment clearly support the notion that social interactions may play a key role in food choices and that social interactions with a friend can well serve as a substitute for food in both lean and overweight youth.

Importantly, I would imagine that the reverse also holds true: i.e. kids who don’t get enough time to spend with their friends can substitute this friendship with food. The key word here is probably “friends” as it is apparently not enough to just spend time with any old kid – it’s got to be a friend to be valued as much as food.

So could the fact that our kids don’t get enough time to hang out with their friends be an important driver of the childhood obesity epidemic?

I certainly welcome views on this from my readers!



  1. Of course if they choose interaction over regular meals and snacks they’re far more likely to struggle with their dietary choices and portions later in the day.

    So to play devil’s advocate, could part of the rise in childhood obesity be our increasingly socially networked world where kids in fact are so intertwined with their friends that they don’t take the time to effectively snack which in turn drives hunger, cravings, increased afternoon and nightime calories and obesity?

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  2. Given how many children are “latchkey kids” and have to come straight home from school and stay there alone until parents come home, lonely eating is easy to become a habit.

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  3. In my generation, playing with friends was just what we did. We did not spend hours watching TV or surfing the internet. We led active lives and the obesity rate was much lower than it is now.

    Friends, of course, played an important role. We played with our friends outdoors for hours. In today’s society parents are forced to be more guarded of children playing without supervision.

    Sharon has a very valid point about “latchkey kids”. TV and computers have become babysitters.

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  4. It is time to do some prevention in our world in all areas. We are busy fixing problems instead of preventing them. Our children need role models to help them become active and healthy eating individuals.
    Baby boomers were not health conscious as they are today. Our parents did not promote active healthy life styles because we lived a healthy life style. We ate natural foods, no processed foods, then came convince foods. I do not think we saw this coming, how it would take over the world and our health. We need to see whole natural foods again in a better light. Good fres food is simple, fast and healthy. Nothing can be faster than taking a fresh chicken out of the fridge pop it in the oven with a few vegies, do home work, walk the dog, take a shower, take a jog and before you know it dinner is ready. No processed chicken nuggets, french fries, fatty hamburgers, enticing chemical milkshakes, think about it, how yummy does that dinner smell and taste.
    Now we have created a health and fitness industry that is expensive for alot of people to participate so the TV and internet is the substitution and people are not socializing as much. The schools consider exercise an extracuriclum activity and that cost money so it is eliminated from the school program. Now lets look at the health care cost from the results of this elimination of exercise programs. It is astounding the cost to cure the deseases that are a result of obesity. Parents, it is your responsibiliy to teach your children good eating and exercise lifestyles. It is all about a lifestyle.

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