What Facebook teaches us about obesity

Bianca Rae, KESQ News Channel 3 & CBS Local 2 Reporter, brae@kesq.com
POSTED: 03:51 PM PDT Apr 28, 2013    UPDATED: 03:57 PM PDT Apr 28, 2013 
PALM DESERT, Calif. -

What we post on Facebook may be an "exaggerated" look at our social lives, but according to a new study, the social media website could actually provide a pretty accurate reflection of obesity rates around the country.

A new study from Boston Children's Hospital researchers shows that the more people in a certain area or region who "like" or share information on healthy activities on Facebook, the lower the likelihood of that area having a high obesity rate. Similarly, the more people in a certain area or region who "like" or share information about TV on Facebook, the higher the likelihood of that area having a higher obesity rate.

"The tight correlation between Facebook users' interests and obesity data suggest that this kind of social network analysis could help generate real-time estimates of obesity levels in an area, help target public health campaigns that would promote healthy behavior change, and assess the success of those campaigns," study researcher John Brownstein, Ph.D., of the Boston Children's Hospital Informatics Program, said in a statement.

The new study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, involved comparing obesity rates around the U.S. with TV- or activity-related interests on Facebook. Researchers found strong correlations between obesity and activity-related or TV-related Facebook "likes."

For example, researchers found that the highest number of activity-related "likes" were in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and that the obesity rate is 12 percent lower in this area than in Kansas City, Missouri-Kansas, where there was the lowest number of activity-related Facebook "likes."

Similarly, the highest number of TV-related Facebook "likes" was in Myrtle Beach-Conway-north Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, and that the obesity rate is 3.9 percent higher here than in Eugene-Springfield, Ore., which had the lowest number of TV-related Facebook "likes".