Elinor Jones gives a rundown of the pros and cons of pushing a dieting culture on children and the potentially dark consequences.
Weight is always a controversial topic. We are bombarded day after day with conflicting advice from scientists, activists, influencers and public opinion, often with no place to escape from this ever-increasing mountain of literature on body size, shape and composition. With that in mind, and the exponential growth of social media and portable technology, we have the potential for further creating a culture of body shaming, dysmorphia, and eating disorders in all forms, notably with the lack of awareness of companies that target those most vulnerable to the effects of such attitudes.
It could be argued that children and young people are one of the most vulnerable populations often targeted by negative attitudes towards obesity, whether that happens in the school playground or at home, on the TV or online. The most recent provocative player in this potentially dangerous game comes from WW, formerly known as Weight Watchers, who launched Kurbo, an app designed to provide healthy eating behaviour advice to children from the age of eight to seventeen, using advice developed by Stanford University.
Based on a successful, six-month programme for group healthy weight maintenance in children and adolescents across the pond, the app, which allows young people to track their daily intake of food and drink as well as receive hints and tips, uses a simple traffic-light system to chart dietary items, similar to that found on packaging in UK supermarkets. Each colour represents a different classification. Green represents food stuffs such as fruit and vegetables, with children receiving pointers to eat ‘green’ in abundance. Other in-app features include a subscription to ‘trained coaches’, who are required to have a minimum education in nutrition and wellbeing of just twelve hours.
I sadly suspect that children and young people will be using apps such of this in an uncontrolled manner, rather than in the care of health professionals and support network
Infamous among many adults, Weight Watchers have long been a household-name, scoring both fans and critics across the globe, some elated at how effectively weight-loss occurred, others dubious of its potential to manifest obsessive behaviours. I sit on the fence with these such of programmes, especially if they involve a group activity. Medical science shows us that we are amidst an obesity epidemic, with obesity-related deaths increasing rapidly. In the UK, it is estimated that two-thirds of adults are overweight and over a quarter of children were overweight or obese in 2016. For adults, who are at the liberty of greater control over their food, income and other factors that influence weight, sticking to a routine of meal planning and healthier cooking can be beneficial, so long as everything is done in moderation. The app even has a ‘streak’ feature familiar to those who frequent Snapchat, encouraging users to monitor eating habits on a daily basis.
However, the concern for Kurbo, a concern of many parents, is how negative attitudes towards food, body image and exercise may become apparent, whether at the outset or delayed onset later in life. Alongside obesity, eating disorders are becoming more and more prevalent in all age groups, with dangerous consequences. Whilst many sceptics think eating disorders only affect people wishing to be model-thin, conditions such as body-dysmorphia, the belief that a whole or particularly body part is inherently flawed, and binge-eating are creating becoming more common, and vulnerable children are particularly at risk of developing such conditions. Common eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, are even life-threatening, anorexia is the biggest killer of all mental illnesses, and can stem from an unhealthy body image and negative relationship with food.
It is important for brands such as WW, who target their products for those wishing to make beneficial life choices, ensuring the safety of their audience, promoting good practice with professional advice, whilst maintaining a duty of care towards the users of its service; I sadly suspect that children and young people will be using apps such of this in an uncontrolled manner, rather than in the care of health professionals and support network. A grave concern for me will be that children could be left without the very help they need, in a world locked away online. What happens if these children are forgotten? Will we be facing a different kind of epidemic in future?
The need for effective support networks for those facing weight challenges is as pertinent as ever; using a combination of online advice and Slimming World-type groups may show some benefit for children. However, the regimented and potentially obsessive nature of apps like Kurbo mean the next generation could be left disillusioned.