The kids are not all right. But they think they are.

A team of researchers at Georgia Southern University found an alarming rise in the lack of self-awareness among children and teenagers in the United States. Specifically, way more overweight adolescents are oblivious today to the fact that they ought to lose weight than were in decades past – and it’s a big problem.

“The trend is very dangerous,” said Jian Zhang, who describes the phenomenon as a vicious cycle.

It’s also complicated. Teenagers suffer through a lot of things, including an acute pressure about appearance. As a result, this is a worry that stems from health concerns, but requires a difficult balance in educating young people without causing or furthering anxiety about body image.

The researchers used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, an in-depth study of the nutritional status of adults and children in the United States, which tracked, among other things, the health of nearly 2,000 teenagers between the ages of 12 and 16 in the early 1990s and over 2,500 teenagers in the same age range between 2007 and 2012. As part of the study, participants’ body mass index was collected, along with the response to this rather straightforward question: “Do you consider yourself to be overweight, underweight, or just about the right weight?”

When the two were juxtaposed – what each adolescent said in response to the question, and what their corresponding BMI said about their weight – Zhang’s team noticed a pretty clear trend: Far fewer kids believe that they are overweight today, even though many more of them should.

“Within a short time scale, the likelihood that overweight or obese teens believe that they are overweight declined by almost 30 percent,” Zhang said.

Adolescents, for instance, are 29 percent less likely to correctly perceive themselves as being overweight than they were almost 20 years ago, according to the study’s findings. And the drop-off is the most pronounced among younger children – overweight 12-year-olds are almost 40 percent less likely to understand that they are overweight today.

Even after adjusting for factors such as race, sex and socioeconomic status, the change is still stark. In fact, it’s rich white kids who have developed the poorest understanding. Zhang points out that’s partly because teenagers from minority groups began with a higher proportion of misperception. But it also reflects how widespread the change is.

The immediate danger resulting from poor self-awareness among overweight children is pretty clear: It’s hard enough to lose weight when you know that you should. You can imagine how the difficulty compounds when you don’t – and you’re still a child. But that lack of self-awareness among kids is made worse by the fact that mothers and fathers are becoming more oblivious, too. A study published last year by Zhang found that parents are significantly less likely to realize that their child is obese than they were 20 years ago.


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