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Crowdsourcing Novel Childhood Predictors of Adult Obesity

Bevelander, Kirsten E., Kirsikka Kaipainen, Robert Swain, Simone Dohle, Josh C. Bongard, Paul D.H. Hines, and Brian Wansink (2014). Crowdsourcing novel childhood predictors of adult obesity. PLOS ONE, 9(2), e87756. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0087756

As the rate of pediatric obesity increases and has long lasting effects during adolescence and adulthood, childhood is the crucial time for prevention. Previous research has shown that a “crowdsourcing” process can generate more novel ideas than professionals. This study presents crowdsourcing as an innovative bottom-up approach for detecting possible unexpected or new predictors of obesity by using the knowledge of the general (non-expert) public.

The two objectives of this study were: to examine whether it is possible for a non-expert community to identify known childhood predictors of obesity using a crowdsourcing process, and to find out whether crowdsourcing can be used as a low-effort method to discover potential new childhood determinants of adult obesity.

Participants were recruited through notices posted on, a user-generated content news site. Notices were posted in sections focused on dieting, weight loss, and parenting. 532 individuals followed the postings and participated in the study. After entering demographic information, height and weight to calculate body mass index (BMI), and answering at least one question posed by a previous user, participants were asked to enter questions that they felt would help predict the BMIs of other participants. The questions focused on elements of one’s childhood that could predict that same individual’s BMI as an adult. The website predicted each participant’s BMI based on the growing data set. Researchers looked for questions that helped to accurately predict BMI.

Of the 59 questions that were posed by the participants and seeded by the researchers, 16 questions were significantly correlated and 3 questions were marginally correlated with BMI. Elements of parenting such as packing school lunches, preparing meals with fresh ingredients, talking with children about nutrition, and engaging in regular outdoor activities were strongly related with having a lower BMI later in life. Unsurprisingly, family history of high BMI was linked to higher BMI in adults; using food as a reward or punishment and restricting food intake were also linked to higher BMI in adults.

This paper was one of the first to present crowdsourcing as a potential screening tool to evaluate whether the general public could suggest early predictors that are associated with obesity development. Findings show that participants were able to discover determinants that have been investigated by professionals. Most importantly, participants were able to highlight topics that are less documented, which might merit more attention in future research. Potential new predictors discovered in this research were largely related to parenting styles and family environments. Habits learned and initiated in childhood tend to be continued in adult life, and therefore a stronger focus should be placed on families as a supportive environment for establishing healthy habits.