WW (the company formerly known as Weight Watchers) recently released a free app called Kurbo to help children and young adults ages 8-17 lose weight.  Though WW claims that Kurbo gives kids and families a useful tool to support wellness, there are also a number of unanswered questions about this new app and the risks it might pose to young people. Here are three key concerns about Kurbo and its potential influence on kids and young adults.

  1. Using Kurbo could harm young people with eating disorders
  • Although the research in this area is still limited, there are some strong indications that health-tracking apps might be harmful for adults with eating disorders, so the same could be true for children.
  • Kurbo does not screen its users, so there’s nothing stopping a young person who already has an eating disorder (or who may be at risk of developing one) from using the app. Journalists for the outlets Eater and Vice have reported that Kurbo encourages dieting and weight loss even for users whose profiles show them to be underweight.
  • What’s more, Kurbo’s coaches are not medical professionals and do not meet with users in-person, which means that they might easily miss any signs of disordered eating.
  • There is only required parental oversight for kids on the app who are between the ages of 8-12 years old.This means that adolescents – the most common period for eating disorder onset – will not have required adult monitoring to be sure that they’re not interacting with the app in a destructive way.
  1. There is no long-term research on Kurbo’s effects
  • While there is some evidence that traffic-light systems like the one Kurbo uses can foster healthy eating habits, there is not yet any solid research that shows how Kurbo works in the long term.  So it’s misleading for WW to state that they are teaching children “sustainable” behaviors. Three month follow up of users does not say anything about whether the behaviors learned will be sustained long term.
  • Even for children and young adults who are not at risk for an eating disorder and who could benefit from healthier eating habits, it’s not yet clear that Kurbo actually does help users maintain their health goals over time.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends that children and adolescents avoid dieting in general, and there is no evidence yet that Kurbo might be an exception to that rule.
  1. Kurbo pathologizes normal variations in body type and weight 
  • To set weight goals for its users, Kurbo uses Body Mass Index (BMI) scores, a measure that many argue is unhelpful and even discriminatory. BMI is a simple ratio of height to weight, which means that it doesn’t take into account variables like muscle tone and bone weight and can consequently be an inaccurate measure of health. For example, BMI might classify a perfectly health person as overweight or obese.
  • Additionally, height and weight are constantly changing as children and young adults grow and develop, which makes BMI even less helpful as a tool for guiding young people’s eating habits.
  • Finally, because BMI numbers are based on information gathered from mostly from white populations, the measure does not take into account differences in body type that may vary along racial lines, so it tends to be especially inaccurate when it comes to assessing the health of people of color.

Due to concerns like these, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) recently released a statement urging parents and young people to approach Kurbo with caution. At this point, it seems clear that the risks of using Kurbo are likely greater than its benefits.