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Modeling Social Transmission Dynamics of Unhealthy Behaviors for Evaluating Prevention and Treatment Interventions on Childhood Obesity


  • Leah M Frerichs
  • Ozgur M Araz
  • Terry T – K Huang


Research evidence indicates that obesity has spread through social networks, but lever points for interventions based on overlapping networks are not well studied. The objective of our research was to construct and parameterize a system dynamics model of the social transmission of behaviors through adult and youth influence in order to explore hypotheses and identify plausible lever points for future childhood obesity intervention research. Our objectives were: (1) to assess the sensitivity of childhood overweight and obesity prevalence to peer and adult social transmission rates, and (2) to test the effect of combinations of prevention and treatment interventions on the prevalence of childhood overweight and obesity. To address the first objective, we conducted two-way sensitivity analyses of adult-to-child and child-to-child social transmission in relation to childhood overweight and obesity prevalence. For the second objective, alternative combinations of prevention and treatment interventions were tested by varying model parameters of social transmission and weight loss behavior rates. Our results indicated child overweight and obesity prevalence might be slightly more sensitive to the same relative change in the adult-to-child compared to the child-to-child social transmission rate. In our simulations, alternatives with treatment alone, compared to prevention alone, reduced the prevalence of childhood overweight and obesity more after 10 years (1.2–1.8% and 0.2–1.0% greater reduction when targeted at children and adults respectively). Also, as the impact of adult interventions on children was increased, the rank of six alternatives that included adults became better (i.e., resulting in lower 10 year childhood overweight and obesity prevalence) than alternatives that only involved children. The findings imply that social transmission dynamics should be considered when designing both prevention and treatment intervention approaches. Finally, targeting adults may be more efficient, and research should strengthen and expand adult-focused interventions that have a high residual impact on children.

Suggested Citation

  • Leah M Frerichs & Ozgur M Araz & Terry T – K Huang, 2013. "Modeling Social Transmission Dynamics of Unhealthy Behaviors for Evaluating Prevention and Treatment Interventions on Childhood Obesity," PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science, vol. 8(12), pages 1-14, December.
  • Handle: RePEc:plo:pone00:0082887
    DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0082887

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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Negar Darabi & Niyousha Hosseinichimeh, 2020. "System dynamics modeling in health and medicine: a systematic literature review," System Dynamics Review, System Dynamics Society, vol. 36(1), pages 29-73, January.

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