Social Media and Peer Behavior

A new study published in the journal Science has shed some interesting light on what influences health behaviors.  In a study of how people behaved relative to a fitness and diet intervention, study participants who were grouped alongside folks with characteristics similar to their own were more likely to use a diet diary and pursue healthy behaviors then those grouped with characteristics unlike their own.For the study, researchers divided the 710 participants into small groups of “health buddies” who were connected through the online social networks. Researchers grouped some of the participants with buddies who had a similar age, body mass, diet preference and fitness level, while other participants were grouped in more diverse networks.

In each group of health buddies, a “dummy” participant invited group members to participate in an online diet diary program. The online diary allowed users to share information such as exercise minutes, healthy behaviors and personal characteristics.

Researchers found that study participants who were grouped with buddies of similar characteristics were more likely to use the diet diary and pursue healthy behaviors than participants in a diverse group of buddies.  When a network member began using a diet diary, this health-promoting behavior was more likely to be adopted by individuals in networks where people’s social ties were similar — especially among obese members.  In the similar health buddy groups for example, more than 12% of obese participants signed up for the online diet diary program. In the diverse health buddy groups, no obese participants signed up for the program.

Experts commenting on the study noted that this may be intuitive behavior, noting that people are more likely to adopt a behavior if people ‘like themselves’ are also doing such–especially if the characteristic they share is something compelling, like obesity.  This may be why the group programs such as Weight Watchers are more successful than solo dieting.

Do you think these interventions are applicable to public health issues such as smoking cessation and weight loss?  Let us know!


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