A tragedy of encouraging children to listen to an app, rather than their stomachs, is that it robs them of weight-regulating tools they already had. And while it’s up to parents — the ones who have the resources to do so — to try to ensure their kids’ access to good food, regular meals and plenty of exercise, offloading that responsibility onto a weight-loss app administered by non-professionals whose first interest is not in the health of these kids but in the health of its bottom line is quite possibly setting them up for an eating disorder.
“Dieting is a risk factor for eating disorders, and for future weight gain in adulthood,” nutritionist and author Pixie Turner told me. “Eating disorders are on the rise, and being diagnosed at younger and younger ages. Children whose parents put them on diets are more likely to have unhealthy attitudes towards food, which can last well into adulthood.”
“Babies and children are natural intuitive eaters – when you feed a baby they will suddenly turn their head when they’ve had enough,” explained Turner. “They don’t need an app telling them how much is enough food, and yet Kurbo is actively encouraging children to turn away from their body’s natural hunger signals to rely on external cues instead, to rely on an app that knows next-to-nothing about that child’s life.”
The consequence of repeatedly ignoring these signals can be both physiological and psychological. “When children lose that ability they are at higher risk of weight gain in the future, as they aren’t easily able to recognize when they’re full and so are more likely to overeat,” Turner said.
“Weight gain is a normal part of childhood,” said Turner. “In focusing on weight, we are ignoring how complex health is. Health is far more than just a number.” Tellingly, not all the reasons Kurbo prompts children to consider for losing weight are even health-related. “The app allows children to state their primary motivation for being on the app is ‘making parents happy,’ ” Turner points out. “That is heartbreaking. Parents should love their children unconditionally, not on the condition that they’re thin.”
Many of the factors which will prove most influential to a child developing a healthy relationship with food will be completely out of that child’s hands. But children model what they see. If they notice a parent fretting about weight and food — and this includes being presented with a weight loss app — it is likely that they will do the same. This, in turn, is more likely to harm their health than improve it.
In a culture that overwhelmingly stigmatizes fat and celebrates thin, the last thing a child needs is the reinforcement of a message they already hear every day: that losing weight will make them better.