Lose Weight With Text Messaging

A UNC study suggests text messaging would provide a fun, familiar medium for children to report program goals and receive messages of encouragement.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

November 11, 2008

3 Min Read

Text messaging via mobile phone has been linked to illiteracy, carpal tunnel syndrome, and distracting drivers to death, but there's an upside, too.

Text messaging can help reduce a child's chance of becoming obese by facilitating behavior monitoring and modification, according to a new study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Call it text hectoring.

Citing data from two National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (1976-1980 and 2003-2004), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that the prevalence of overweight children ages 2 to 5 years has risen from 5% to 13.9%, from 6.5% to 18.8% for children ages 6 to 11, and from 5% to 17.4% for those ages 12 to 19.

The UNC study, published in the November/December issue of the Journal Of Nutrition Education And Behavior, followed 58 children between the ages of 5 and 13, with the participation of their parents.

The families attended three group classes over the course of three weeks that educated them on ways to increase physical activity, decrease time spent watching television, and reduce the intake of sugar-sweetened drinks.

Participating children were given pedometers to measure the number of steps they took every day, in conjunction with specific goals for steps taken, minutes of screen time, and beverage consumption.

The families were then divided into three groups: one group that monitored program goals via mobile phone text messaging, one that recorded program goals in paper diaries, and a control group that did no program goal monitoring.

Because children and adults trying to lose weight often become less vigilant about monitoring their weight loss goals over time, Jennifer R. Shapiro, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry in the UNC School of Medicine and principal investigator of the study, hoped text messaging would provide a fun, familiar medium for children to report program goals and receive messages of encouragement.

"We wanted to see whether using text messaging would be more fun for kids and if kids would actually stick to it and enjoy it more than the traditional way of keeping track of your behavior by writing it down, which we know people don't stick to," Shapiro explains in an online video.

The study found that children in the text-messaging group had a lower attrition rate (28%) than their peers reporting progress via paper-and-pencil (61%) and than those not reporting (50%). It also found that those in the text-messaging group adhered to self-monitoring goals at a higher rate (43%) than the paper-and-pencil group (19%).

"What we found was that more children in the text-messaging group actually completed the study when compared to those in the traditional paper-and-pencil group, and compared to the group that didn't write anything down," she says. "Also, kids in the text messaging group actually kept track of their behavior twice the amount as the kids in the paper-and-pencil group. This says that when using a fun, technological way of getting kids to keep track of health behavior, it may actually result in them doing it more and lead to a decrease in obesity."

Shapiro wasn't immediately available to explain whether vigilant parenting might also offer a way to keep toddlers and tweens away from sugary drinks, screen time, and lazy behavior without having to buy them iPhones to get the message.

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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