A Weight Loss App May be A Risky way to Address Obesity in Children

Over the last week, a weight loss app targeted at children and teenagers aged 8-17 has sparked concern among health professionals and parents around the world.

More than 90,000 people have signed an online petition calling for withdrawal of an app called Kurbo.

Kurbo was launched in 2014. WW (formerly Weight Watchers) bought it last year and have recently relaunched it.

It's currently only available in the United States, but we could see it launched in Australia.

Overweight and obesity affect one in four Australian children and adolescents. Excess weight is likely to persist into adulthood and is associated with the development of chronic disease.

While there are calls for better treatment options, the way treatments for obesity are delivered is important.

Unsupervised use of an app that encourages children to track their weight carries the danger of perpetuating body image issues and leading to disordered eating.

The traffic light system

Kurbo is based on the traffic light system, a family-based lifestyle interventiondeveloped by Stanford University.

This system groups foods into three categories:

  • "red" (limit or budget them into your plan, for example lollies and soft drinks)

  • "amber" (watch your portion, for example lean meat and pasta)

  • "green" (eat any time, for example fruit and vegetables)

The aim of this system is to encourage families to eat more "green" foods and less "red" foods. The traffic light system has been shown to be effective in improving weight-related outcomes in children treated for overweight or obesity without a negative effect on eating behaviours, when used by the whole family through a supported program.

But Kurbo uses the traffic light system as an online app targeted to children directly, rather than to parents or families. Children aged under 13 need a parent's permission to download the app, but those over 13 don't.

Alongside other features, the paid version of the app provides children with a weekly video-chat check-in with a health coach. The training health coaches have had in child obesity, mental health and body image is unclear.

Possible pros

Technology and apps providing health services are growing in number, and can be convenient and cost effective.

Importantly, families actually want to use technology for more flexibility in the way they receive nutritional support.

In one study of a telehealth nutrition intervention with a website, Facebook group and text messages, benefits included ease of self-monitoring and increased access to services for families living in regional or remote areas. This intervention resulted in improved eating habits in children.

Apps in particular are a promising option because they're portable and can connect with other technologies.

Kurbo was one of three apps targeted to children identified in a 2016 review of mobile apps for weight management. The version of the app evaluated at the time of the review was found to meet eight evidence-based strategies for weight management: self-monitoring, goal-setting, physical activity support, healthy eating support, social support, gamification, and personalised feedback delivered via a health coach.

Technology evolves rapidly, so it's unclear if these features all remain in the current version. As we're based in Australia, and the app is only available in the US, we can't access the app directly to verify this.