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Adolescent weight gain and social networks: is there a contagion effect?


  • Mir M. Ali
  • Aliaksandr Amialchuk
  • Song Gao
  • Frank Heiland


Previous studies on the spread of obesity in social networks have focused on the contemporaneous effect of peer weight outcomes on individuals. This article is the first to investigate the longer term effects, within adolescence and from adolescence into early adulthood, of peers on individual weight outcomes. Using data from the first three waves of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), and accounting for correlated effects using a number of empirical strategies including school-level fixed effects and accounting for neighbourhood preferences, we show that Body Mass Index (BMI) and overweight status in a person's friendship network influence their BMI and likelihood of being overweight. The evidence suggests that there is some persistence of the effects of past peer weight experiences on individual weight outcomes during adolescence and into early adulthood. The findings are consistent with adolescence being an important formative period of individuals’ preference for ideal physique and own body weight aspirations. We conclude that policy makers should be particularly concerned with interventions during childhood and adolescence, in order to slow the spread of obesity by promoting a healthy body image and positive health behaviours.

Suggested Citation

  • Mir M. Ali & Aliaksandr Amialchuk & Song Gao & Frank Heiland, 2012. "Adolescent weight gain and social networks: is there a contagion effect?," Applied Economics, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 44(23), pages 2969-2983, August.
  • Handle: RePEc:taf:applec:44:y:2012:i:23:p:2969-2983
    DOI: 10.1080/00036846.2011.568408

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Mir M. Ali & Aliaksandr Amialchuk & Francesco Renna, 2011. "Social Network and Weight Misperception among Adolescents," Southern Economic Journal, Southern Economic Association, vol. 77(4), pages 827-842, April.
    2. Tomas J. Philipson & Richard A. Posner, 1999. "The Long-Run Growth in Obesity as a Function of Technological Change," Working Papers 9912, Harris School of Public Policy Studies, University of Chicago.
    3. Caroline Hoxby, 2000. "Peer Effects in the Classroom: Learning from Gender and Race Variation," NBER Working Papers 7867, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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    Cited by:

    1. Ali, Mir M. & Amialchuk, Aliaksandr & Rizzo, John A., 2012. "The influence of body weight on social network ties among adolescents," Economics & Human Biology, Elsevier, vol. 10(1), pages 20-34.
    2. 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.
    3. Paolo Nicola Barbieri, 2018. "BMI and Employment: Is There an Overweight Premium?," Italian Economic Journal: A Continuation of Rivista Italiana degli Economisti and Giornale degli Economisti, Springer;Società Italiana degli Economisti (Italian Economic Association), vol. 4(3), pages 523-548, November.
    4. Barbieri, Paolo Nicola, 2015. "Social Distortion in Weight Perception: A Decomposition of the Obesity Epidemic," Working Papers in Economics 639, University of Gothenburg, Department of Economics.
    5. Nie, Peng & Sousa-Poza, Alfonso & He, Xiaobo, 2015. "Peer effects on childhood and adolescent obesity in China," China Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 35(C), pages 47-69.

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