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!