Overweight adolescents are indifferent about the weight of their friends, but not so the thin peers, who are more likely to choose friends whose weight status is like their own, researchers looking at teenagers’ social networks say.
The role of obesity in friendships among young people is complicated, as are the ways relationships contribute to health, the researchers said. For instance, they wrote in the American Journal of Public Health on May 15, "[f]riendships among overweight adolescents may reinforce unhealthy behaviors that further exacerbate weight problems.”
The researchers, David Schaefer and Sandra Simpkins of Arizona State University, looked at a group of teenagers by taking into account both the person initiating the friendship and the target of that advance as well as what role weight played. They used the 58,987 students from 88 schools who were part of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.
The young people listed their five closest female friends and five closest male friends. The researchers accounted for selection of friends based on connections such as extracurricular activities or a mutual friend, to isolate weight status as a criterion.
Young people, the researchers said, are more likely to socially marginalize overweight peers and, as a result, overweight young people have an average of one fewer friend than normal weight teens. Teens who were not overweight were 30% more likely to select a friend who was not overweight than one who was, the researchers said.
“This is especially troubling since friendships are important sources of support and companionship,” Simpkins said in a statement. “Not having or losing friends is associated with higher depression and lower self-worth for young people, which could exacerbate the health problems association with being overweight.”