There is no question that smart phones make things easier. Daily tasks are more convenient because of these portable personal assistants. But, there is fear that smart phones will eliminate the need to interact in person with others, and research already shows that smartphone usage can turn into an addiction which indeed harms interpersonal relationships. A recent study at BYU showed that usage of the device—for teens who are trying to lose weight, in particular—is in fact not sufficient. It is not a substitute for the support and accountability elements that real-life relationships provide.
Dr. Chad Jensen, FHSS psychology professor and director of BYU’s Pediatric Health Behavior Research Group, has been researching how to help teens lose weight for years. His latest study reveals the importance of person-to-person support. “We know that teens are on their phones,” he says, “which gives us a way to intervene in the moment. We wanted to determine whether we could effectively use texting and a commercially-available smartphone app to help adolescents with weight loss.” He provided an app called Daily Burn to help teenage recipients track their weight loss by recording exercise and food intake.
Over twenty percent of teenagers are obese, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The participants in Dr. Jensen’s study were all between the ages of thirteen and eighteen and had a body mass index that placed them in the eight-fifth percentile for height and weight, meaning that they were heavier than eighty-five percent of teenagers overall. For the first 12 weeks of the study, participants met face-to-face with a clinician and other peer participants to discuss their progress and motivations. Three times a day, the clinicians texted encouraging messages to the teens. For the second 12 weeks, the teens no longer met in groups. They only received texts from the clinician. Surprisingly, only 16.8 percent of teens recorded their progress in the app, a fifty-percent drop from earlier weeks. The teens also regained the weight they had just lost. Although participants were able to lose weight during the in-person treatment, they were unable to maintain weight loss during the electronic-only intervention period.
Losing weight can be a challenge because it requires persistence and time, which can wear us down. That is why social support is crucial to helping teens loose weight. “The Daily Burn app doesn’t include all the things we know are successful for weight control,” he reported, “like social support and the accountability that comes with that support. That support existed when the teens were meeting with other teens and sharing their experiences.”
This study is one of the first to examine smartphone outcomes in the context of weight-control interventions for adolescents, and perhaps part of the arsenal of information parents and teens can use in their quests to live healthier lifestyles.