The American Heart Association is trying to get us thinking about using social networks—in both the old-school, interpersonal connections sense as well as the newer electronic one—to tackle childhood obesity.

The society published a scientific statement in its journal, Circulation, finding evidence that the social network effect can help as well as hinder development of healthier dietary and exercise habits among kids. The authors pointed to the recent Framingham Heart Study, which found that among adults, the spouses, siblings and friends of obese people were at greater risk of becoming obese themselves, and that this effect was felt several circles out.

Similarly, they wrote, “among children and adolescents, body mass index is associated with school-based friendship clusters,” which impact frequency of fast food consumption among groups of boys and body image concerns and eating disorders among groups of girls. Another factor: the “built environment,” or the physical environment kids inhabit.

Examples of successful social “interventions” include:

•    Geocaching, an online/offline scavenger hunt in which kids search for items described online using navigational tools;
•    The Chick Clique program, in which girls wear pedometers and share travel distance info with a network of friends;
•    The Chefs Move to Schools initiative of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, which encourages chefs to partner with schools to create healthy, affordable meals and educate kids on healthy cooking and eating;
•    The Weight Watchers program, which they called highly accessible, while conceding that little is known about its spillover effects on kids
•    The Weigh2Rock program, offering online health and weight-loss education and an online support community of several thousand overweight kids, teens and parents;
•    Active video games like the Nintendo Wii Fit and Microsoft Kinect

The AHA called for further study of social interventions and said physicians, having the growth data to quantify the problem, must prod families to address childhood obesity. “It is for this reason that these recommendations cite motivation, particularly motivational interviewing, as part of the clinician’s role,” said AHA.