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More Worried Than Before: Parents Describe Growing Concern Over Their Kids’ Weight

In 2003, the U.S. General Surgeon proclaimed that America faced a new health epidemic: childhood obesity. Yet, many parents weren’t worried about their children’s weight. In response, organizations around the nation flew into action to raise the alarm. We wanted to know if parents became more concerned about their children’s weight after 10 years of warnings about childhood obesity. We also wanted to know if anything about children or parents increased those worries.

To answer these questions, we used data from health surveys that 365 parents completed in 2002 and again in 2012. Participants first completed these health surveys in 1982 or 1992, when they were college students. We then followed participants every 10 years and asked them to answer the same questions again and added new questions to capture changes in their lives such as getting married and having kids. In 2002, 44.5% of women and men reported having children. Amongst those with children in 2002, 81.7% provided follow-up data in 2012. At both time points, parents gave information about themselves and about their children, including their children’s weight range and if they worried about their children’s weight.

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At both time points, parents reported greater worry when their children’s weight fell above the average range. The percentage of families with such children increased from 23.4% to 30.5% over the 10-year follow-up. Across the entire sample, the number of parents who reported concern significantly increased over the decade. In 2002, 36.5% of parents said they were concerned about their children’s weight. That number rose to 54.4% by 2012. This increase could not be explained by changes in children’s weight because the majority of kids were in the average weight range. Instead, for these families, parents’ personal investment in being thin predicted their increased worry over their children’s weight.

By 2012, a majority of parents reported worrying about their children’s weight even though a majority of their children had weights in the average range. We interpret increased concern as mirroring the increased national attention on childhood obesity as an epidemic. Although public health campaigns are intended to improve public health, there may be negative consequences as some parents may employ harmful tactics to control their child’s weight.

Previous research highlights that some obesity campaign messages stigmatize individuals at higher weights by emphasizing that 1) higher weight is detrimental to an individual’s health, 2) weight is completely under an individual’s control, and 3) being overweight or obese is due to a failing of willpower. Some obesity campaigns hope to ignite weight loss through these messages, but these campaigns may have the opposite effect. In experiments, when participants are exposed to such messages, they eat more food than those who are not.

Currently, we are extending this research to examine both the emotional and behavioral consequences of public service announcements that utilize weight-stigmatizing messages. Findings will reveal whether obesity campaigns that induce shame increase loss of control over eating as well as how much food people eat. This will tell us whether well-meaning efforts to improve public health may cause more harm than good.

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These findings are described in the article entitled Prevalence and predictors of parental concern for children’s weight from 2002 to 2012, recently published in the journal Public Health.

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