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I am the father of a teenage boy. I recently realized that I live with a perfect subject to study - not just for the results of a failure to bathe regularly or deodorize one's shoes, but also for how mobile health can help adolescents during a time when some of their parents are reconsidering just how wise it was to have kids in the first place.
To start, I'm not sure that my son is so typical, since his behavior causes my temper to flare only about half the time. That being said, I think the fact that we decided early on to prohibit video games in our house has been a good thing. My kids still play computer-based games and our cable TV package provides more hours of viewing than is humanly possible. I admire my kids' efforts, though, to convince us to get a Nintendo Wii for the health benefits. I'm not denying that the Wii Fit does offer some fitness opportunities, but it's reminiscent of when I was his age and tried convincing my parents that a vacation in France or certain Caribbean islands - as opposed to a car trip to visit relatives in North Carolina - would be so much more beneficial because I'd get to practice the French I was learning in school.
My son's school is technologically advanced. All incoming ninth graders this year were issued iPads. In this initial phase, two of their textbooks are electronic and offer media-rich supplemental content. They receive all of their assignments electronically, and do most of their homework on the iPad itself as well. They take notes on the device in class, and communication to and amongst students is all electronic.
This is what has turned my son into a zombie.
Well, that, YouTube and the fact that students can also load games on the device through their personal iTunes accounts. My son is glued to the device most of the time, and questions posed to him are often answered with that bleak and bleary-eyed stare of the walking dead.
In a post earlier this year, I questioned why a game called "Zombie Swipeout" was listed in the iTunes app store under the Health & Wellness category. I still wonder that, but it is also why my curiosity was piqued when a recent article on CNN.com describing 10 great mobile health apps also listed an app called "Zombies, Run!" Now this app is, in fact, a fitness app that takes "an unconventional approach to cardio, putting users in the shoes of zombie survivors outrunning the apocalypse." I realized that this melding of a video game with fitness would be perfect for teenagers.
Last year, I had a conversation with George Brenckle, the SVP and CIO at UMass Memorial Health Care. He told me about a program they had started for teens with Type 1 diabetes that uses mobile technology to not only help them manage their condition, but - and this is critical - provide positive reinforcement for healthy activities that result in positive outcomes. We all like a pat on the back, but for teens who often seek approval from those in authority, this is a win-win.
Similarly, an increasing number of mobile health apps that offer rewards for demonstrating healthy behaviors are another way to engage teens. A healthy lifestyle may lead to enough points for something they want to purchase faster than savings from their allowance.
Here at Mount Sinai's Adolescent Health Center, we use Text In The City, a blog and text messaging service that addresses health issues teens are confronting every day. Especially for those who may not be comfortable discussing such subjects with their parents, it provides a qualified resource, rather than leaving such topics to hearsay, rumor and potential misinterpretation.
And let's not forget that probably more than others, teens are concerned with their appearance. Mobile apps that promote healthy eating habits and appropriate weight loss are surely a better path to positive self-image than the eating disorders that plague this particular demographic.
As much as I don't want to encourage my children to spend even more time in front of a screen, there is no denying there is value in the use of mobile apps to promote healthy lifestyles in this particular population. And as long as he is healthy, happy and well-adjusted, I can probably put up with my son otherwise being a zombie. As long as he also remembers to take a shower and change his socks.
The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not reflect the views of my employer.
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