PARENTING
14/08/2019 22:35 BST

WW Just Released A Weight Loss App For Kids. What Could Go Wrong?

Weight Watchers, now called WW, is promoting a new "behavior change program" for kids ages 8 to 17.

Rouzes via Getty Images

When news broke this week that WW (formerly Weight Watchers) was rolling out a new nutrition and weight loss app called Kurbo, Whitney Fisch — a social worker, school counselor and mom of three — felt compelled to share her outrage online. 

“You NEED to Shut. This. Down,” she wrote on Facebook. “All bodies, especially growing + developing bodies, deserve respect + the ability to grow into whatever shape they’re meant to grow to be.” She was, she said, writing “with the fury of 1,000 suns.”

Fisch is hardly the only parent who has slammed Kurbo by WW since its launch Tuesday. (WW actually acquired Kurbo in 2018, then spent a year retooling it and adding what Time described as a “Snapchat-inspired interface.”) WW calls Kurbo a “scientifically-proven behavior change program designed to help kids and teens age 8-17 reach a healthier weight,” derived from Stanford University’s Pediatric Weight Control Program.

But many parents and body positivity advocates are calling it flat-out dangerous. 

“This is a TERRIBLE idea,” Kristy, a mother of an 11-year-old girl who is recovering from anorexia and over-exercising, wrote in an email to HuffPost. (She asked that only her first name be used to protect her daughter’s privacy.)

Although Kristy has no direct experience with Kurbo, she said she has seen how technology marketed to promote “healthy” behaviors can fuel unhealthy ones in children struggling with body image issues. Her daughter used a fitness tracker to obsessively log how many calories she burned in a day. “I was shocked at how she used it,” Kristy said.

The Kurbo app uses what WW calls the traffic light system: Kids are urged to eat plenty of “green light” foods (like fruits and vegetables), to be “mindful” of their portions of “yellow light” foods (like lean protein, whole grains and dairy), and to reduce consumption of “red light” foods (like sugary drinks and “treats”).

The app is free, but WW also offers subscription-based plans for one-on-one sessions with coaches said to be experts in nutrition, exercise, and mental health. (The company does not have a set threshold for credentialing, though coaches do go through a minimum of six to eight hours of initial training, as well as three and a half hours of continuing education, a spokesperson for WW told HuffPost.) 

And in line with WW’s recent rebranding and public pivot toward promoting “wellness” rather than focusing on weight loss, the app also encourages kids to track behaviors like daily physical activity and deep breathing. 

“This isn’t a weight loss app,” Gary Foster, chief scientific officer at WW, told HuffPost. “This is an app that teaches in a game-ified, fun, engaging way what are the basics of a healthy eating pattern.” 

“I think there could be some misperception that somehow we’re saying, ‘All kids should lose weight, you’re not OK as you are,’” he added. “What we’re saying to kids who are trying to achieve a healthier weight — kids and families — is that this is a reasonable, sensible way to do it.” Achieving a “healthier weight” is very different for children and adults, he said, because children are constantly growing.

But eating disorder treatment professionals said there might be a disconnect between what WW seems to be trying to do and what the end result may be. 

“While the intention of the app is to promote health and wellness, there is the risk that it could do more harm than good,” said Kathryn Argento, a registered dietician with The Renfrew Center, a national network of eating disorder treatment centers for women and girls. “Targeting kids as young as 8 years old to focus on ... their bodies can lead to an intense preoccupation with food, size, shape and weight.” There’s evidence that body image anxiety can begin in children as young as age 3. 

No matter how hard it tries to market itself as a wellness company, WW is about weight loss. Kids are way smarter than we think they are, and every ‘big kid’ who was put on a weight loss program knew exactly what their parents were trying to do.Ginny Jones, More-Love.org

At the same time, public health experts have identified childhood obesity as a major concern. According to current national estimates, roughly one in five children in the United States are obese, which can increase their risk for immediate health complications, like Type 2 diabetes, as well as longer term problems, like cardiovascular disease.

Yet public health organizations and pediatricians emphasize that this is a complex health issue, and there are real questions about how effective weight loss plans for children even are.

“The evidence suggests that these types of tools may be helpful adjuncts to weight management, but there are few studies in pediatrics to confirm that they lead to a ‘meaningful change in their weight trajectories,’” Dr. Ihuoma Eneli, director of the Center for Healthy Weight and Nutrition at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, told HuffPost. She said it is also unclear how well kids adhere to these types of programs, pointing to a small pilot study of the app that showed fairly low compliance. 

For all of Kurbo by WW’s marketing around its “holistic” approach to health, many parents and advocates worry the only message kids will hear is that there is something about them that is wrong and that needs to change. The “success stories” on Kurbo’s landing page highlight how many pounds children lost, not, say, how many minutes a day they now meditate. WW’s decades-long legacy as a weight loss company is hard to shake. 

“There’s no way that these kids don’t realize that the app is supposed to help them lose weight,” Ginny Jones, who founded a website dedicated to fighting eating disorders in children, told HuffPost. “No matter how hard it tries to market itself as a wellness company, WW is about weight loss. Kids are way smarter than we think they are, and every ‘big kid’ who [has been] put on a weight loss program knew exactly what their parents were trying to do.”