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11 March 2016

Virtual Pets Can Help Children to Eat Healthier

Keywords: computer, food, fruit, health, kids, vegetables, North America, experiment, food intake, tweens,

Virtual pets can help kids to eat more fruit and vegetables, a study in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking shows. Findings show that children want to be served more fruit and vegetables after interacting with a virtual dog.

Take aways

  • Applications can promote a healthy lifestyle in children.
  • Specifically, applications that
    • help children to set fruit and vegetables goals
    • reward children when goals are set, and
    • show the mental and physical benefits when fruit and vegetables are consumed.
  • Virtual pets with these features are more effective than simple computer applications with the same features, because children do not only eat more fruit and vegetables, but also want to be served more fruit and vegetables.
  • For health practitioners, it is important to know that virtual pets are an effective tool to stimulate children’s healthy food choices.

Study information

  • The question?

    Can virtual pets help children eat more fruit and vegetables?

  • Who?

    68 7-to-13-year old children (mean age: 10 years, 53% girls)

  • Where?

    The United States

  • How?

    The researchers divided the children into three groups. Children in the virtual pet group set fruit and vegetables consumption goals together with a personalized virtual dog that responded positively and looked healthy when children met their goals. Children in the computer-only group interacted with a computer application with the same features, but without the virtual dog. Children in the control group did not interact with anything. During three days, the researchers observed the amount of fruit and vegetables that were served and consumed.

Facts and findings

  • Children who interacted with the virtual dog chose to be served significantly larger portions of fruit and vegetables than children in the computer-only or control condition (see Figure 1)
  • As for actual eating of fruit and vegetables, children who interacted with either the virtual dog or the computer application consumed larger portions of fruit and vegetables than children in the control group.
  • However, there were no differences between the virtual dog and the computer-only group. In other words, both applications had equal impact on children's consumption of fruit and vegetables.
  • According to the authors, an explanation might be that although children wanted to eat more fruit and vegetables, they may have been too full to eat all the food on their plate.
  • Remarkable fact: less than 10% of children and adolescents in the United States consume the recommended amount of fruit and vegetables per day by filling half of their plates with fruit and vegetables. Remarkably, this standard was also not reached by a large part of the kids in this study, because the average serving of fruit and vegetables was 27% of the plate.