Today’s American children and teens are growing up behind screens. Whether it’s a smartphone, tablet or computer, American kids between the ages of 8 and 18 spend roughly 7.5 hours in front of a screen for entertainment, education and reading.
Meanwhile, only 10% of them are getting the recommended 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per day. For many, this time is now spent watching TV, playing games and surfing the internet or social media. At the same time, public health experts have identified childhood obesity as a major concern. Nearly a quarter of U.S. children and adolescents are overweight or obese, increasing from 15% in kindergarten to 20% by eighth grade.
To combat this, some companies, like WW, formerly known as Weight Watchers, have taken to apps to help promote physical activity and prevent obesity in kids and teens. WW’s app, Kurbo, helps kids as young as 8 years old monitor their food consumption, physical activity and weight loss.
While its president and CEO, Mindy Grossman, said the company sees this as an opportunity “to change the health trajectory of the world,” the app has sparked controversy among medical professionals, advocates and parents. Researchers have yet to find a reliable way for adults to lose weight and keep it off – it’s why the weight loss market is a $72 billion industry. So, who’s to say this type of tool will be useful for children and teens? And even worse, could it send a message that something is wrong with them and needs to change, fostering unhealthy behaviors and habits?
Jessica Fraker, MD, an internist at Banner – University Medical Center Phoenix, provides clinical insight on the positive and negative benefits of weight loss apps for youth and what you can do as a parent to help provide healthy habits at home.
Should we be concerned about childhood obesity?
“It is definitely concerning as it is estimated one-third of U.S. children and adolescents are either overweight or obese. Obesity is a big issue facing kids today, however, one of the most prevalent issues we see, particularly in adolescents, is mental health concerns, such a depression,” Dr. Fraker said. “This is often related to self-esteem and body image issues.”
Could weight loss apps help solve childhood obesity?
“I don’t think we can say yet what is the answer to the obesity crisis as a whole, as it is a very complex and multifactorial process,” Dr. Fraker said.
In one regard, weight loss apps could help play a role over time as they do help track the types of foods we are eating and our exercise, which makes us more aware of our habits. That said, weight loss apps aimed at youth could have the potential to lead to unhealthy eating habits, particularly if they are already struggling with self-esteem and body image issues, Dr. Fraker said.
How do weight loss apps encourage these unhealthy habits?
Many of the weight loss apps are not monitored by a clinical professional, unless parents pay for the coaching service. Also, the coaches are not required to have outside training in nutrition or dietetics. They also categorize foods as “good” or “bad,” which can bring a host of negative emotions in youth such as guilt and shame.
“They may encourage unhealthy behaviors in children and adolescents by leading them to focus on dieting and restricting foods in order to lose weight,” Dr. Fraker said. “In general, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends discouraging dieting and skipping meals in this age group, as it has not been found to lead to significant weight loss and may predispose them to binge eating or eating disorders.”
What can parents do to help kids improve eating habits without an app?
“Some of the most important things the AAP recommends to help kids improve eating habits include preparing and eating family meals together, limiting screen time during meals and focusing on and encouraging healthy food options and portion sizes, staying physically active through sports and physical play and positive body image,” Dr. Fraker said.
If you are concerned about your child’s weight or a change in their eating patterns or behaviors, schedule an appointment with their pediatrician or a nutritionist to help you talk to your child and develop healthy eating plans. Find a Banner Health specialist near you by visiting bannerhealth.com.
How to Teach Your Child About Healthy Eating
- Involve your child in food shopping and meal preparation
- Avoid using food as a reward, bribe or punishment
- Model healthy eating habits and portion sizes
- Limit screen time during meals
- Don’t focus on weight or dieting during conversations
- When eating less-than-healthy foods, stress these can be eaten occasionally and in moderation.