Pre-teens and adolescents today are using the Internet, including social media sites such as Facebook, almost exclusively as a means of communication. So why not harness this medium to help children and teens who are trying to lose weight find support for losing weight? That's what a committee of the American Heart Association decided to do, and they want parents to know the resource that is now available.

"Online communication and social media are an increasing part of our overall social network," Jennifer Li, chairperson of the group that wrote a statement on the topic, told The Doctor. "Healthcare providers should embrace its potential as a tool for promoting healthy behavioral change."

The Internet is a tool that everyone already has, says Li. Parents and others need to find ways to use this tool to implement some alternative ways for fighting childhood obesity.

The best way parents can help their child succeed in an online weight management program is to take a family-based approach. A child is not going to change their lifestyle and eating habits, unless the whole family supports them. When the family changes its lifestyle and habits by eating better and exercising more this helps their child. "The studies we looked at suggest that more parental involvement and more interaction with counselors and peers were associated with greater success rates for overweight children and teens who participated in an online intervention," says Li, who is division chief of pediatric cardiology and professor of pediatrics at Duke University Medical Center.

Friends help, too. The support of peers who also struggle with their weight can be invaluable. Research has shown that those who are overweight or obese tend to share a home or spend their leisure time with others who are overweight. "Overweight kids hang out together, so they reinforce each other's eating habits," Li says.

An online social network developed specifically for those trying to lose weight forms the basis of the Weight Watchers program. There is a similar program for teens called Weigh2Rock, offering health and weight-loss education as well as an online support community for overweight adolescents, teens, and their parents. The program offers personal weight-loss charts and goal-setting which can be made available to healthcare providers.

Communities and schools can also encourage the adoption of healthy eating habits and behaviors. As an example, Li cites Chefs for Schools, part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign, which encourages chefs to partner with schools and create nutritious, affordable menus while educating children about healthy cooking techniques and eating habits.

Another way to help kids lose weight is offer them safe places to play sports. These can both extend social networks and promote physical activity. For example, districts can improve the condition of school athletic fields and make sports facilities available for use on evenings and weekends.

More work needs to be done, however, says Professor Li, "I think we need to engage those who are invested in making a change and reversing childhood obesity, such as policy makers, teachers, and healthcare providers." Initiatives need to be expanded at the local level, taking into account factors such as the geographic location and socioeconomic level of the target group.

Since everyone can access the Internet, we need to find ways to use it to fight childhood obesity. "Clearly traditional methods are not doing all that needs to be done," Li told The Doctor.

The researchers published their scientific statement online in the journal, Circulation.