Overweight young people are more likely to be rejected as friends by peers who are of normal weight, according to new research by Arizona State University social scientists.
The researchers used social network analysis to incorporate knowledge of how complex social and biological relations contribute to friendship behavior.
"We found consistent evidence that overweight youth choose non-overweight friends more often than they were selected in return," said David R. Schaefer, co-author of the study. Researchers found that overweight youth were mostly indifferent to the weight status of their friends. These results suggest that overweight youth often reach out to non-overweight peers for friendship, but are sometimes rebuffed in those efforts. As a consequence, overweight youth may turn to overweight peers for friendship.
Young people are also more likely to socially marginalize those who are overweight. As a consequence, overweight youth have one fewer friend, on average, than normal weight young people.
"This is especially troubling since friendships are important sources of support and companionship," said Sandra D. Simpkins, co-author of the study. "Not having or losing friends is associated with higher depression and lower self-worth for young people, which could exacerbate the health problems associated with being overweight."
The influence of not having friends or being shunned because of extra weight can be especially difficult during formative teen years.
"Negative repercussions of not having friends may be more pronounced in middle- and high-school when intimacy and fitting into peer groups is critical," Schaefer said.
The researchers utilized social network analysis in the study in order to account for different types of friend selection processes, such as attraction based on similarities, meeting during extracurricular activities, or meeting through a mutual friend. This allowed the researchers to isolate the effect of weight status on friend selection.