BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Parents are acutely aware of the influence of
friends on their children's behavior -- how they dress, how they
wear their hair, whether they drink or smoke.
A new laboratory-based study has shown that friends also may
influence how much adolescents eat.
"Consider a person who usually comes home alone after school and
eats out of boredom," says Sarah-Jeanne Salvy, PhD, assistant
professor of pediatrics in the University at Buffalo's Division of
Behavioral Medicine and first author on the study.
"But on this day, she has a play date with a friend and
socializes instead of eating. In this case, socializing is acting
as a substitute for eating. Identifying substitutes provides a
potential way to reduce behavior.
"Our findings underscore the importance of considering the
child's social network in studying youth's motivation to eat," says
Salvy, a member of the Department of Pediatrics in UB's School of
Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
"Previous attempts to find substitutes for food and eating have
not been very successful. To our knowledge, no research has studied
whether social interactions can be a substitute for food in
The study appears online in the current issue of Annals of
The study involved 54 overweight and non-overweight youth -- 24
boys and 30 girls -- between the ages of 9 and 11. Each was
assigned randomly to bring a friend or to be paired with an
Study participants worked on a computer game to earn points
exchangeable for food or time to spend with their friend or with an
"The task got increasingly harder and the food and social points
became more difficult to earn as a way to measure how hard youth
were willing to work for food or for play time with their friend or
with an unfamiliar peer," Salvy notes.
In the study, participants matched with an unfamiliar peer
showed that when working for food became difficult, they
switched to earn time with the unfamiliar peer, and when
working for peer activity became harder, they switched to earn
However, participants assigned to the friend condition continued
to work for time with their friends instead of working for
"Peer rejection and ostracism are obvious costs imposed on
social interactions," says Salvy. "Even the unavailability of one's
peers or friends can limit youth's access to social settings and
situations. As a result, children may choose to engage in eating
and sedentary activities when social alternatives are
"There is emerging evidence that a youth's social network may be
uniquely relevant and influential to eating behavior and choice of
activities," she continues. "Individuals are influenced by the
eating and activity norms set by those around them, and the results
of the present study suggest that friendship can provide an
alternative to eating.
"These findings, and the work of others, imply that decreasing
sedentary behavior and increasing active leisure activities may
require meaningful relationships with friends, as friendship may
help to promote or 'socialize' active lifestyles."
Lauren A. Nitecki, senior research support specialist in the UB
Department of Pediatrics, and Leonard H. Epstein, PhD, UB professor
of pediatrics and social and preventive medicine, contributed to
The research was supported by a grant to Salvy from the National
Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive
public university, a flagship institution in the State University
of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus.
UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests
through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional
degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a
member of the Association of American Universities.