A small US and German study has found that text messaging may help children fight off obesity by taking advantage of the fact that many youngsters are glued to their cell phones.
Researchers from the University of North Carolina and Germany's University of Heidelberg found text messaging could be used to reduce children's chances of becoming overweight or obese later in life by helping them monitor and modify their behavior.
Recent studies show that about 19 per cent of US children aged between six and 11 are overweight, and that 80 per cent of overweight adolescents become obese adults.
"Self-monitoring of calorie intake and expenditure and of body weight is extremely important for the long-term success of weight loss and weight control," said US researcher Jennifer Shapiro, assistant professor of psychiatry, in a statement.
"Unfortunately, both children and adults who are trying to lose weight often do not adhere to self-monitoring. They tend to be good about self-monitoring at the start of a weight-loss effort, but then their adherence drops off over time."
Traditionally paper diaries are the most effective tool used for self-monitoring by dieters who write down how many calories they eat daily and how many calories they burn through exercise.
But Shapiro and her colleagues had a hunch that this concept might work better in children if they could report their self-monitoring via text messages and receive feedback messages.
The study, published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, involved 58 children aged 5 to 13 and their parents who took part in group education sessions to encourage them to increase physical activity, decrease time spent watching television, and cut back on sugar-sweetened drinks.
The children were given pedometers to track the number of steps they took each day with goals to meet on the number of steps taken, minutes of TV time and number of sugary drinks.
The participants were divided into three groups -- one that reported self-monitoring via text messaging, another group with a paper monitoring diary, and a no-monitoring control group.
The text messaging and paper diary groups answered three questions each day about the use of the pedometer, number of sugary drinks consumed, and TV time.
The text messagers received an immediate, automated feedback message congratulating them on their achievements and asking about other goals.
The study found that children in the text messaging group were far more likely to stick to their goals -- 43 per cent -- than those with a paper diary -- 19 per cent.
Shapiro said the study concluded that cell phone text messaging may be a useful tool for self-monitoring of healthy behaviors in children, and suggests more broadly that novel technologies may play a role in improving health.