Are mobile apps developers co-responsible for children’s obesity? 

Thoughts around the launch of the first animated training program for children


Today, nearly one in three children in America are overweight or obese. The numbers are even higher in African American and Hispanic communities, where nearly 40% of the children are overweight or obese.

A recent study by W.H.O. shows that the situation in Europe isn’t any better, and it’s getting worse.

The Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics reported:

It is increasingly clear that the media, particularly TV, play an important role in the etiology of obesity. […] Pediatricians need to ask 2 questions about media use at every well-child or well-adolescent visit: (1) How much screen time is being spent per day? and (2) Is there a TV set or Internet connection in the child’s bedroom?

Surgeon General Richard Carmona said:

Because of the increasing rates of obesity, unhealthy eating habits and physical inactivity, we may see the first generation that will be less healthy and have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.

Mobile apps still don’t have a specific place in the leaderboard of the causes for children’s obesity, but it is safe to assume that the increasing number of activities that kids can do in front of a screen and the ubiquity of devices is not going to make their lives more physically active.

In the next 20 years there will be hundreds of millions of people in the world suffering from health problems that could have been prevented by a healthier lifestyle. But we can change this if we address this problem aggressively.

Is there something we can do as app developers?

I believe so. But it’s going to take a little perspective shift in the way we set our priorities, our balance sheets, and in the way we evaluate our performances as companies. In fact, as app developers, the most important metric we evaluate our work on is how “sticky” our apps are: how much time do the users spend playing our games and how many times do they come back? Our job is to make sure users spend as much time as possible playing our game and what happens in the meanwhile to our users is considered “none of our business”.

We may acknowledge it or not, but there is a world beyond our apps. Studies about the games we produce should investigate positive effects as well as side effects. There is a number of factors that you may not be measuring because they are not relevant to your business, but -hell!- they are important to your audience.

The whole point of sustainability is to evaluate the impact that a product, a process, a building, a game, has not only on the company’s balance sheet, but also on society as a whole. At the moment, we as an industry are no more sustainable than a company producing non recyclable plastic bottles in massive quantities.

We as an industry are massively pushing kids to stay inside, to play videogames, to watch cartoons, to learn while using beautifully designed apps and… to get fat. We are encouraging them to think that creativity only lives in our brains and that experience is something that can be made from a sofa.

Let’s be fair, it’s not all our fault. It’s us, it’s parents not granting kids any unsupervised time for outdoor adventures, it’s TV… but -hey!- we have plenty of opportunities to do our part and be part of the solution instead of being part of the problem.

The world is richer than a screen, even than a retina one. Bodies need to move, to touch, to push, to lift, to grab, to jump. As trivial as these actions may sound compared to learning python, being physically active and engage with those around you using your body can make a difference not only in the health condition of all of us, but also in the richness of our emotional and intellectual lives.

At Timbuktu we always tie the stories we publish to experiences in the physical world, but now we feel it’s time to push our mission further. It’s time to stretch our arms and try to hold ourselves to a higher standard. From now on, in the metrics we evaluate our performances on there will not only be ARPU, D1 retention, average time per session, but also the health conditions of the kids using our apps and… watching our cartoon. Yes, you heard us. An animated series.

Today, we’re introducing “Dooper School”, an animated series that will make it irresistible to move along with a hilarious group of characters.

There’s not much we can tell you right now, but I must admit, we’re pretty excited about what we’re working on.

Technology reached a point where immersive storytelling is opening up possibilities and we strongly believe THIS is the next big thing. Media have been trying hard to find their big thing in the mobile revolution. We’re now ready to start experimenting radically new ways to deliver stories: to engage physically with our users, and to have them move in order to explore stories. We believe it’s quite time to revolutionize the way we experience stories.

This is what we call sustainable entertainment: it makes an innovative use of technology, it takes into consideration the wider impact of a story, it pushes humanity forward.

Watch the teaser of “Dooper School” and subscribe to our newsletter if you want to know more!