Today in studies that would've made my eighth-grade self feel vindicated, we learn that kids who feel ostracized when playing games are less likely to exercise. And unsurprisingly, there are way better ways to get kids moving than shaming them.
In a study published today in Pediatrics, researchers had nineteen kids (all aged around 12) play a computer game called Cyberball. Sometimes the kids were "ostracized" in the game — otherwise, they were fully included (Cyberball has been used in other pysch experiments and involves computerized fake opponents who can be programmed to either include or exclude real kids). Afterwards, the kids got to choose between active or sedentary activities. The ones who were included were more likely to choose activities that got them moving around. The study authors write,
This suggests that experiencing ostracism has an immediate negative impact on children's choice to be physically active. These findings are consistent with previous results from nonexperimental survey research, indicating that social adversity is associated with lower levels of physical activity participation in children. Additional research examining potential differences in these effects between normal weight and overweight/obese children is warranted, because over- weight youth are at greater risk of difficulties with the larger peer group. The present results provide the first causal evidence that ostracism may reinforce behaviors that lead to obesity in children. The consideration of the effect of adverse social interaction on physical activity behavior may further our understanding of physical and behavioral health trajectories.
Cyberball is a computer game, but this research still should come as no surprise to anybody who got bullied or shamed in gym class. The more you feel like an idiot when you try to do something, the more you're likely to quit pushing yourself. And while some PE may be more enlightened these days, gym classes when I was a kid tended to penalize kids who needed help with athletic skills, rather than actually helping them (I still remember the day I got an F in "throwing"). They also included trials-by-fire like picking teams, which encourage kids to belittle and, yes, exclude their less-athletic peers. I think the competitive environment of my gym classes was supposed to make kids try harder, but it just kept me from trying at all. I didn't believe I could push myself physically at all until my twenties, when I discovered solo, less-competitive activities like yoga, swimming, and rock-climbing.
Lots of efforts to get kids healthier in this country seem to focus on shaming — witness those spectacularly awful Georgia anti-obesity ads. But if the authors of the ostracism study are correct, social shaming might actually make kids exercise less. Interestingly, another study suggests a way to get kids exercising that has nothing to do with shame. ScienceDaily reports that kids whose parents took parenting classes focused on helping them "be more responsive and nurturing as well as more effective in their approach to discipline" exercised more when they reached adolescence. They also had lower blood pressure and lower rates of obesity. To be clear, the parenting classes weren't focused on diet, exercise, or obesity — instead, they taught moms and dads to give time-outs instead of smacks, and other constructive ways of dealing with behavior problems. So basically, just teaching parents to treat their kids nicely (but, presumably, firmly) helps them learn healthier behaviors. And fostering an inclusive environment in PE class may help them be healthier too. Helping kids feel good might actually make them healthier — imagine that.