I'll be taking a few weeks off to spend time with my family and travel, and will write infrequently during this time. Meantime, I'll be reposting some of the more popular posts I’ve written over the past years so that new readers have a chance to catch up. Happy holidays!
Peer pressure is a pretty powerful force that can both help and impede kids’ choices. No kid is totally immune to peer pressure and that’s why I care a lot about who my kids hang out with—I’m sure most parents do.
Peer behavior influences a wide range of health related behaviors--from smoking to alcohol intake to bike-helmet wearing--and also influences kids' eating patterns. The need to belong and the effect of peers are most pronounced in adolescence.
A study in the journal Appetite set out to see if friendship groups affect teens’ unhealthy snacking behavior. The study looked at the snacking habits of about 750 Dutch teens while mapping out who’s friends with who. It also collected data including the teens’ weight, education level and personal characteristics as well as the availability of high-caloric-density snacks (chips, candy, soda etc.) in those kids’ school canteens and vending machines.
Here are the study’s main findings:
• Teens with friends who ate snacks and drank soft drinks tended to do the same if snacks were available in schools canteens and vending machines. In fact most soft drinks were consumed by teens with friends that drank soft drinks.
• The tendency to conform to friends’ snack habits was stronger for boys and for teens with lower education levels.
• Girls ate more healthfully than boys, and seemed less susceptible to peer pressure to snack unhealthfully.
Chicken or egg?
So which came first? Do teens model their friends when it comes to snacking, or do they pick friends with similar snacking habits? This study can’t really answer that question. Other experimental studies though have shown that people model eating choices and quantities after friends’ patterns. Regardless, herd-like snacking behavior suggests new possibilities for intervention: Create a ripple of better eating within the group and it may grow into a wave that includes the entire cluster of friends.
The effect of vending machines
The presence of junk-for-sale in schools was a critical component of unhealthy snacking group-behavior in this study. In schools that had limited or no junk around, peer influence was less strong. It’s quite obvious that regardless of your friends’ habits, inability to perform the habit in school due to a missing key ingredient—the snack for purchase—gives less opportunity for the habit to spread.
Resisting unhealthy peer-pressure
Although friends affect teens quite a bit, and teens spend fewer hours with their family as they grow older, I’m quite sure that good family relationships, good role-modeling from parents and a high self-esteem are really important in enabling kids to stick to what they know is better for their health.
I don’t know how many parents-to-teen-boys (of which I am one) will appreciate this, but this study does hint that hanging out with the girls can promote better eating. I do love a study that compliments girls. Women tend to make healthier food choices at all stages of life, so having us around is usually a health promoting lifestyle.