Social and individual influences on eating in pre-adolescents: The role of friends’ eating behaviours and individual anxiety and depression

Friends are important role models for the formation of social norms and behaviour comparisons, particularly in children. This study examined the similarities between pre-adolescent children’s own eating behaviours with the eating behaviours of those in their friendship group. It also evaluated whether symptoms of anxiety and depression were related to eating behaviours in this age group. Three hundred and forty three children (mean age 8.75 years) completed questionnaires designed to measure dietary restraint, emotional eating and external eating, as well as general and social anxiety, and symptoms of depression. Children also provided details about their friendship groups. Pre-adolescents’ dietary restraint was positively predicted by the dietary restraint of members of their friendship groups, and their individual levels of anxiety and depression. The levels of general anxiety exhibited by pre-adolescents predicted emotional and external eating behaviours. Younger children were significantly more likely to report higher levels of emotional and external eating than older children, and boys were more likely to report more external eating behaviours than girls. These results suggest that greater dieting behaviours in pre-adolescents are related to their friends’ reports of greater dieting behaviours. In contrast, greater levels of eating governed by emotions, and eating in response to external hunger cues, are related to greater symptoms of anxiety in pre-adolescent children. Such findings underline the importance of friends’ social influences on dieting behaviours in this age group and highlight the value of targeting healthy eating and eating disorder prevention interventions at pre-adolescents.