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Talk to tweens about health app use


“Health apps can be used to develop good habits and as a positive way to keep track of good nutrition,

Tweens use health apps to track fitness and nutrition, sleep and wellbeing, but parents have concerns.

Moms and dads worry how the apps may affect their child through targeted advertising and the potentially negative impact of meal tracking on body image, according to the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health at Michigan Medicine.

While parents will have to put in an effort to be sure health app use is positive for tweens, they should realize that health apps can be an opportunity for all ages to learn more about health and fitness, said Sarah Clark, a research scientist in the department of pediatrics and director of the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health.

“Health apps can be used to develop good habits and as a positive way to keep track of good nutrition,” Clark said. The study is unique because it looked at an often-overlooked age group: Tweens. Because the Children’s online privacy Act covers kids 13 and up, “tweens are a gray area that is often not addressed,” Clark said.

Because high school health class was a few years ago for most parents, health apps can be a useful support for those who do not feel comfortable with their health expertise.

“The food pyramid looked different when they learned it. We think about health and nutrition differently now,” Clark said.

Two-thirds of parents of tweens worry about ads with inappropriate content targeting kids, and three-fourths agree that having children track what they eat may lead them to become too concerned
about their weight or body image.

Just 19% of parents say they wouldn’t allow their child to use an app with games about health while 32% would say no to apps offering health tips or coaching, and 38% would prohibit apps tracking health information.

Most parents agree that using an app may help tweens develop healthy behaviors.

“Parents are concerned with the ads that come along with the app and the images within the app. Both could be too mature,” Clark said. “You know what your 10-year old looks and speaks like and what type of clothes they wear.” If a person or character on the app seems older, it is a good idea to hold off on that app, for now, she said.

Like other social media or online apps and games, health apps are an opportunity for parents and kids to discuss digital safety, Clark said. Be sure to check out a health app through a reliable source, such as Common Sense Media, Clark said. Do your research to make sure the strategies used to promote healthy habits are evidence-based and age-appropriate.

Engage your tween in conversation. Find out what they’re excited about. What does the health app do? Be wary of an app that directs users to another site, especially one that sells things, Clark said. Parents should consider using a similar health app as a way to maintain a dialogue with children about tracking health.

The best health apps for tweens will offer “good positive messaging about moderation,” Clark said. Stay away from ones that are restrictive, such as an app that points out daily weight gain or how many calories are left in the day.

Body size is all over the place during the middle school years, so an intense focus on personal body image can be negative for tweens.

“You don’t get to control your rate of growth. So setting them up with a ‘you’re in control’ message isn’t helpful and it can be harmful,” Clark said.

Eating disorders can begin during the tween years, Clark said.

A majority of parents say they want input from their tween’s health care provider about using health apps, but only 3% have actually talked to a physician about it. Bring it up during a well-child visit. The doctor can help in regard to health and nutrition information or media usage, Clark said.

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