Can Technology Be an Ally in the Fight against Childhood Obesity?

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Posted By: Amy Hillier

Technology has been a target, rather than an ally, in the battle against childhood obesity. Parents are advised to keep television sets out of their children’s bedroom, turn the TV off during meals, and monitor and limit children’s “screen time”—those hours spent each day in front of computers, TV, or video games. The time children spend glued to these media devices is time they are not outside playing and being physically active. Perhaps even worse, these technologies are vehicles for the junk food industry’s messages, providing direct access to children. And most of these media are now mobile, so “screen time” can happen anywhere.

It’s tempting to think that technology is the problem and that limiting or removing its influence on children is the answer

But could technology be part of the solution, helping us to steer children toward healthy eating and physical activity? Increasingly, the answer is yes. Those concerned with media influence on children’s sedentary behavior are beginning to sit up and notice video games like Nintendo’s Wii and Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) that require players to move. The state of West Virginia has actually integrated DDR into the physical education and after-school programming at all of their public schools and nationwide teachers are being offered ideas by Sony for using PlayStation 2 and Eye Toy in their classrooms to increase physical activity. While researchers have yet to deliver the verdict on whether these devices really do increase physical activity, for the first time, technology is being viewed as an ally with the potential to get kids up off the couch.

But new technologies may prove exceedingly useful in the fight against childhood obesity in a completely different way: by helping researchers better understand how—and where—children eat and get exercise. Geospatial technologies such as geographic information systems (GIS) and global positioning systems (GPS) allow researchers to integrate information about crime, traffic safety, access to food stores, proximity to billboards advertising unhealthy products, and the distance children live from schools and parks. Google continuously adds new features to their online maps—such as the ability to upload your own route data and view street-level panoramic photographs. It won’t be long before we are asking children to use these online tools to show us how they walk to school and what they stop to purchase and eat on the way. The result will be much richer models of how their eating and physical activity levels are influenced by their environment. By equipping children with pedometers and accelerometers researchers are also able to see if children’s self-reports about physical activity are accurate. Digital cameras and simple photo and video editing software allow children to actually participate in our research and help our understanding of their behavior.

At the same time, a range of personal devices that adults and children, alike, carry with them provide new opportunities for education. Medical journals are using MP3 downloads to share the latest research results with busy physicians and researchers. Researchers are using cell phone text-messages to send adolescents messages about the health consequences of their choices and PDAs to record field data. Mash-ups, blogs, and wikis—types of “collaborationware” rather than software—invite a wide range of contributors to share their voices. Wikipedia has been the subject of tirades by teachers who want students to cite more authoritative sources in research papers, but these new ways of sharing information can be effective tools for learning. Why not have children blog about the food environment in their school, complete with reviews of the hot lunch and a la carte choices, with their suggestions for new healthy options?

These examples show how technology developed for other purposes can be adapted for use with children and research. Think of the possibilities if new technologies are developed just for kids. Why can’t those sneakers that light up have built-in pedometers so they only light up when kids reach their personal physical activity goals? Can we build DDR dance pads right into sidewalks so that kids can dance their way to school? What about developing a version of GoogleEarth or GoogleMaps that allows children to reshape their own food and recreation environment, stocking corner stores with their favorite healthy snacks and transforming vacant lots into skate parks or enormous trampolines?

While the nearly endless possibilities are exciting, we shouldn’t be naïve about the cost of adapting or developing new technologies to help in the fight against childhood obesity. Nickelodeon’s online Dora the Explorer Food Pyramid game represents only a fraction of the $10 million investment that EA Sports and Nintendo make to develop a new video game. Guess which one is more fun for kids? Fortunately, many of the other choices—GPS, digital cameras, cell phones, mp3 players, and PDAs—are becoming increasingly inexpensive. And Web2.0 sites, like MySpace and YouTube, are fun for kids because they can add their own material and network with others, not because they feature life-like (and thus expensive) 3D animation and sound.

Under the right circumstances, these new media technologies can do great things. Most importantly, they can engage children. The entertainment and advertising industries are far better at connecting with children than researchers, advocates, and educators. No doubt some of the entertainment and advertising strategies are shameless and much of what they offer children is pure junk. But children are captivated because these media were designed for them and often deliver challenging and sophisticated material. To be successful, the campaign against childhood obesity needs to be equally successful at engaging children. We need their help designing and implementing our research, interventions, and policies. Children need to see themselves as agents of change, in control of their choices and able to change their environments. We must view technology as an ally because we need children as our allies.

Amy Hillier is assistant professor of City Planning in the School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania.

Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are solely the opinions of the individuals and not those of the Academy.