One of the first studies to use crowd-sourced information to uncover potential predictors of obesity has suggested that children whose parents are very involved in their young lives are more likely to be slim in adulthood. Results of the study, conducted by researchers at Cornell University in New York, are published in the journal PLOS ONE.
The researchers say they used crowdsourcing in order to determine whether the method could produce well-documented predictors in obesity research and whether new avenues for research could be discovered.
Accordingly, the team recruited 532 adult study participants from relevant areas of reddit.com, a website where users generate content, and asked them: "Which childhood experiences and behaviors might predict slimness or obesity in adulthood?"
The participants suggested what they believed to be the best predictor for adult weight and submitted this predictor in the form of a question. In total, 56 unique questions were submitted. Some of these were:
- When you were a child, did someone consistently pack a lunch for you to take to school?
- When you were a child, were your parents obese?
- When you were a child, how much sleep did you get on an average school weekday?
- When you were a child, were you bullied?
In addition to supplying weight, height and age, the participants answered questions from others about their own childhood behaviors.
Crowdsourcing 'provides new avenues of study'
The researchers note that data from 2010 showed the rate of obesity in the US to be 16.9% among children and adolescents, and 35.7% among adults.
Results of the crowd-sourced study suggest that children whose parents were very involved in their young lives were more likely to be slim in adulthood.
Given the so-called obesity epidemic, the team says effective, simple screening tools are needed "to detect behaviors that are established early in life and have a significant influence on weight gain later in life."
Based on the findings of their study, Brian Wansink, professor at Cornell University and lead researcher, says:
"One of the best safeguards against your children becoming overweight as adults is how involved you are with their lives."
He notes that parents who play with their children, talk about nutrition or just spend time with them are more likely to have children who grow up to be slim adults.
"The bottom line for parents is: Spend a lot of time with your kids - it almost doesn't matter what (activity) you do with them - just stay in their young lives," he adds.
But one of the most compelling findings from the study involves the nature of crowdsourcing itself. Kirsten E. Bevelander, another author from the Radboud University Behavioural Science Institute in the Netherlands, explains:
"What's particularly amazing is how people have identified these childhood predictors of obesity that experts have never thought about. Things like bullying, number of friends and how often parents play outdoors with their children are significantly predictive of how much a child will weigh as an adult."
Additionally, the authors say their findings show that crowdsourcing can "reproduce already existing hypotheses and also generate ideas that are less well documented." They say the questions produced by the participants suggested new ways to identify known predictors.
A promising method, but it carries certain limitations
Given that crowdsourcing is anonymous, fast and inexpensive, the researchers believe it is a promising method for coming up with new hypotheses and issues that might otherwise be overlooked by professionals.
However, they cite limitations to their study, which need to be considered when interpreting their findings.
One limitation, for example, is that the study was retrospective and involved self-reported responses about childhood, based on memory. Because of this, the team says it is not possible to ascertain how the markers led to the adults' current BMI and which behaviors in adulthood might have led to it.
Additionally, the participants were recruited from groups relating to dieting, so the team says a "sampling bias" resulted from targeting these specific groups.
But the team says that "when it comes to weight loss or weight gain, nearly everyone has experience and is an expert," and suggests that "they can be considered lay scientists in this field."
They add that crowdsourcing could have benefits for the participants, in that it shows them which questions correlate with obesity, and it could encourage them to improve their own parenting strategies. They also suggest it could "get them involved in other citizen science initiatives to improve public health."
The authors conclude their study by writing:
"However, because it is difficult to carefully control the quality of the questions submitted or the demographics of the participants, as would be the case with a more controlled study, this approach is most likely only a complement to, rather than a replacement for, conventional research methods."
Medical News Today recently reported on a study that suggested health and fitness habits influence health over the next two decades.
Written by Marie Ellis