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Kids who are shunned may have higher risk of obesity

February 8, 2012

Staff Report

The social and emotional burdens of ostracism — particularly among children — are well known, but few studies have tested the impact of social exclusion on physical activity behaviors that may result in childhood obesity. A new study from Dr. Jacob Barkley, an assistant professor of Exercise Science at Kent State University, demonstrates an immediate causal relationship between social exclusion and decreased physical activity among children.

A basic experiment

Kent State researchers, led by Dr. Barkley, asked children between the ages of 8 and 12 years old to play a virtual ball-toss computer game called Cyberball, telling each child he or she was playing the game over the Internet with two other children. In half of the sessions, the child was excluded from receiving the ball for the majority of the game. In the other half, the child received the ball one-third of the time.

Each child in the study played the game once under each condition and was then immediately placed in a gymnasium where he or she could choose any sedentary or physical activity they liked while researchers observed and measured physical activity.

Powerful results

Measurements of physical versus sedentary activity of the children immediately after playing Cyberball under each condition revealed ostracism elicits decreased physical activity participation in children — reducing accelerometer counts by 22 percent and increasing time allocated to sedentary behaviors by 41 percent.

Our findings demonstrate the direct negative impact of social exclusion on a child’s likelihood to be physically active — regardless of the reason for ostracism,” Dr. Barkley said. “Furthermore, even a brief experience of ostracism has an immediate impact on levels of physical activity, whether or not a child is overweight.”

Real-world application

According to Dr. Barkley, if children are ignored in social situations, often alone during free-time, picked last, often overlooked, not interested in group activities, short on friends and bullied, they are more likely to reduce physical activity behaviors. And that increases the risk for childhood obesity and other adverse health effects.

More research is needed to better understand what initiates the cyclical relationship — social exclusion leads to less interest in physical activity behaviors, decreased activity may lead to further ostracism, and so on,” Dr. Barkley said. “However, we now know sedentary activity in children can result from an instance of ostracism.”

Dr. Barkley’s research, “The Effect of Simulated Ostracism on Physical Activity Behavior in Children,” will be published in the March 2012 Pediatrics.

From the Feb. 8-14, 2012, issue

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