Student Well-Being

Weight-Loss Drugs Are the Talk of Social Media, and Teens Are Listening

What educators should know about adolescents and popular weight-loss drugs
By Caitlynn Peetz — March 18, 2024 5 min read
This image provided by Novo Nordisk in January 2023, shows packaging for the company's Wegovy medication. The popular weight-loss drug, which has helped millions of Americans shed pounds, can now be used to reduce the risk of stroke, heart attacks and other serious cardiovascular problems in patients who are overweight or who have obesity, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Friday, March 8, 2024.
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Just over a year ago, the FDA approved the weight-loss drug Wegovy for children as young as 12 fighting obesity. And the popularity of the drug—and its relative Ozempic—has surged ever since.

Celebrities including Elon Musk and Sharon Osbourne, as well as countless influencers to whom teens pay attention, have touted the drug’s virtues on social media. Last year, medical professionals wrote about 4,000 prescriptions for semaglutide—the active ingredient in Wegovy and Ozempic—for teens ages 12 to 17.

The drug can be effective—if expensive, and often not covered by insurance—and addressing obesity early can prevent serious health problems later in life. But even though the treatment is meant for teens at the highest end of the weight spectrum, its popularity could feed into the concerns that teenagers, particularly girls, have long had about body image, highlighting the importance for schools to take an active approach to educating students about the importance of healthy living, the risks of abusing weight-loss drugs, and where to find reliable information about health and medical treatments.

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“These are very real conversations that are becoming very prevalent in the media and on social media, and it’s the kind of thing that can really impact kids,” said Lisa Hinkelman, CEO of Ruling Our eXperiences, a nonprofit focused on research and programming about girls’ well-being.

Much of the buzz about Ozempic and Wegovy has come in the past year-plus.

In December 2022, the FDA approved Wegovy as an obesity treatment for children as young as 12 whose body mass index is at or above the 95th percentile for their age and sex. It had previously received FDA approval as a weight-loss drug for adults, and Ozempic had been on the market since 2017 as a treatment for Type 2 diabetes. A month after the FDA’s approval of Wegovy for teens, the American Academy of Pediatrics endorsed the use of weight-loss drugs as part of “comprehensive obesity treatment.”

The goal of the new treatment recommendations is to catch and address obesity early, as it is a condition that can have serious lifelong consequences. Children with obesity are five times more likely than their peers to be overweight as adults, and obesity can put kids at higher risk for developing high blood pressure and diabetes.

At least one early trial funded by Wegovy and Ozempic manufacturer Novo Nordisk found that the drugs were successful: nearly half of teens in the trial achieved a healthy weight in about 17 months.

About 15 million children and teens in the United States are considered obese, a number that has tripled over the past three decades, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But some fear introducing the prospect of weight-loss drugs so early in a child’s life can have adverse affects.

“There’s a concern that what might be underlying the pursuit of [weight loss] is not necessarily connected to health, putting [young people] at risk of, or even reinforcing, an eating disorder,” Doreen Marshall, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association, told Teen Vogue.

Commentary may contribute to girls’ confidence troubles

More and more children are hearing about weight-loss drugs as conversations about drugs like Ozempic gain traction on social media.

Stories frequently spread about high-profile celebrities using Ozempic to drop weight quickly, and talk about the drug is hard to miss on social media platforms including X (formerly Twitter) and TikTok.

The boom in popularity for these drugs and the associated focus on body image come at a time when young people, particularly girls, are already struggling with their self-esteem and mental health.

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More than half of girls in 5th through 12th grades said social media makes them want to change how they look in a survey released in October by Ruling Our eXperiences.

Two-thirds of girls said how they feel about their bodies makes them feel less confident. Nearly 90 percent said they feel pressured to be “pretty.”

The Ruling Our eXperiences survey also found that young girls who felt confident in themselves were more likely than others to feel focused, to say they felt as if they belong at school, and to be able to get along with other girls.

School districts can’t control what children see on social media, but educators can help build up young people’s confidence in their abilities outside of their appearance, said Hinkelman, at Ruling Our eXperiences.

She said her overarching concern is that discussions about using medication to manage weight is teaching young girls that the most notable characteristic about them is their weight.

“We have to, as educators, help girls and young people identify all of the things about themselves that are wonderful and have nothing to do with their appearance so they have awareness, understanding, and pride in their strengths, characteristics, and competencies,” Hinkelman said.

Schools should start teaching healthy habits early

More generally, schools can promote students’ wellness by prioritizing practices that encourage healthy eating and regular movement, said Lynn Nelson, president-elect of the National School Nurses Association.

The school nurses’ association doesn’t have an official position on the use of weight-loss drugs in children, as medical professionals would decide on and manage that treatment outside of school. But the group does feel strongly that schools can help young people form lifelong health habits that will set them up for success for life.

Districts should provide healthy breakfasts and lunches with minimally processed food, and avoid having vending machines full of sugary drinks and snacks throughout their buildings, Nelson said.

Schools should also make sure students have opportunities to get up and move throughout the day, even if it’s not for long stretches of physical activity.

All of these lessons should also be woven into schools’ health curricula for students of all ages, Nelson said.

“The key is to start forming healthy habits early,” she said. “Kids need to be learning these things for their long-term well-being, along with everything else they’re learning in their school.”

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