Weight Watchers (now rebranded as WW) just released an app designed to deal with the childhood obesity crisis in a familiar and worrisome way: That’s right, WW just released a weight loss app for kids ages 8 to 17. The app, called Kurbo by WW, asks for kids to enter their height, weight, age, and health goals (weight loss is among those) and then the kids log what they eat every day. The app then ranks the food on a system much like a traffic light: green foods are essentially 0 point foods and can be eaten whenever (think, fruits, vegetables, and, for some reason, ground turkey breast); yellow are “moderate portion” foods; and red foods mean kids should “stop and think.” For those who want to pay $69 dollars a month, kids can also be connected to a personal coach.
Here’s some advice: Don’t pay that $69. In fact, if you care about your kid’s mental (and physical) well-being, don’t download the app at all.
While the food intake goals and exercise thresholds might be a great way to remind kids to get moving (some 75 percent of kids aged five to 10 get less than an hour of physical activity daily) logging and monitoring these things on an app with the goal of weight loss has been shown to be bad for kids. The American Academy of Pediatrics (and most parenting experts, for that matter) have consistently advised parents and doctors to talk less about the number on the scale and more about the lifestyle that kids and their families led. Kids should not be logging the foods they eat daily. This leads to eating-disordered behavior. And eating disorders are the third most common chronic condition in teenagers, following obesity and asthma.
Even adolescents and kids trying to lose weight in a healthy way often begin to engage in disordered behavior like skipping meals, starving oneself, diet pills, or laxative use when their weight loss is reinforced with positive praise by peers and adults. In other words, linking a healthy lifestyle to weight loss or getting “thin” in teenagers can be disastrous, and making kids as young as eight years old think about their weight and that losing weight is good has a strong likelihood of ensuring kids develop eating disorders.
WW executives have defended the app, anticipating criticism for getting 8-year-olds on a weight loss program. “If we are going to change health trajectories, we have to educate, inspire and support at an earlier point in time,” Mindy Grossman, who came on as CEO of WW in 2017, said to Time, “There is a very significant need to help families earlier.”
Sure, but not through a food- and -weight-tracking app. If a teenager or a child is struggling with obesity or being overweight, Dr. Erika Doukas, a clinical psychologist who has been working for decades in treating eating disorders, strongly recommends that parents decouple the idea that healthy diets and exercise lead to weight loss. Yes, those things might lead to weight loss, but what’s most important is eating healthy food as a family and getting exercise as a family without commenting on caloric content; carbs; fat, or other things that kids might associate as “bad” food, which can also lead to disordered eating.
Furthermore, parents should tell children that weight gain and bodily changes during pubescence and pre-pubescence is normal. Parents should focus on their kid’s physical and mental health, get outside and play with them, and engage in sports or other fitness activities that aren’t strongly tied to weight loss.
Doukas and other experts agree that you should never, ever talk to your kids about the number on the scale. You shouldn’t comment on when they lose or gain weight. Even if you are concerned that they might be gaining weight, the only acceptable way forward is to put more vegetables on the plate and build in exercise to the family schedule. That way your kids and teenagers will couple exercise and healthy eating with a healthy, normal, and balanced lifestyle: not about gaining or losing weight.
While the app developers argue that this app mirrors that philosophy — by incentivizing healthy foods and subtly reinforcing that they help kids be healthy — it appears that this is just about getting kids to lose weight. Time quotes a few studies that drive the point home that this app is a hugely bad idea for kids: a 2019 study found that half of the people who used weight loss apps felt “guilt, obsession, and social isolation” stemming from the use of the app. Those feelings are commonly associated with eating disorders. That doesn’t sound like something an 8-year-old, a 10-year-old, or a 17-year-old should go through just for a number on a scale. Maybe kids should just be kids — the kind of kids who eat carrot sticks at lunch and run around the soccer field at night for thirty minutes with mom and dad.