More screen time might help combat teen obesity

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Children may already have one of the tools necessary to combat obesity technology. A Pew Internet study found that 78 percent of teens have cell phones and 47 percent of those are smartphones. Researchers around the country have started to develop programs using these resources to encourage teens to make healthier choices.

Dr. Susan Woolford of the Pediatric Comprehensive Weight Management Center at the University of Michigan and colleagues have developed a targeted text message program that sends messages to obese adolescents to help them change their behaviors encouraging them to reduce screen time, eat a healthy breakfast and reduce the number of calorie-dense foods in their diets. The 21 obese teens participating in the pilot program filled out a survey detailing their activity level, what kind of support they have, what kinds of foods they like and what inspires them to lose weight, making it possible for the team to develop unique messages targeted for each individual. Of the program, Dr. Woolford says, It s interesting because most often we think using technology is part of the problem. We actually hope that using this new technology will help us.

And cellphones are being used in a different way at Massachusetts General Hospital s Center for Child and Adolescent Health Policy, where Dr. Nicolas Oreskovic has started using the GPS system on phones to study where and when young people are active. He had teens wear accelerometers and GPS devices in order to track them over three seasons and was able to collect information about the locations in which a teen was most active. In this way, he hopes to help urban planners design cities and towns to promote a more healthy and active lifestyle in children. He also adds, I think the wave of the future is in these not traditional areas.

ACSH s Dr. Gilbert Ross says, This is a novel idea in a small pilot study, but I d really like to see some tangible results to validate the effectiveness of using cellphones in this way. I would also still like to see more emphasis placed on physical education in schools. This is an area where the highest number of teens can be reached.

ACSH s assistant director of public health, Ariel Savransky, remarked that while it s true that we often think of technology, such as TV and computer screens, as being the foe of healthy lifestyles and a key contributor to obesity, it s good to see modern methods being applied to combatting this problem for a change.