You could say that technology is a big part of my life. I’m the founder and CEO of a tech startup and also a tech correspondent for the media. I live in a smart home, tricked out with the latest gadgets and devices. And I was an early adopter of activity trackers like the Fitbit, and you’ll often still find me with one on my wrist. I think activity trackers are great—I generally loathe exercising and need all the help I can get. I’ve found the reward badges and friendly competition features of fitness trackers motivational, and I also love the reminders to get up and stretch, stand, or move around when I’ve been sitting for too long.
But despite my appreciation of technology and activity trackers, I had all kinds of mixed feelings when I heard that Fitbit was launching the Fitbit Ace, a fitness tracker aimed at children. And it’s not alone: Other brands are already in the children’s activity tracker space, including Garmin.
You see, I have a seven-year-old daughter. And although I’m pretty chill about her use of technology, my first reaction to the idea of putting an activity tracker on her wrist was hell no. Intuitively, it feels unnecessary and wrong. Although I clearly need a fitness tracker to tell me to move, my kid doesn’t. She wants to move on her own. Don’t most kids? What could the makers of these activity trackers be thinking?
“We designed Fitbit Ace with both parents and kids in mind to inspire the entire family to embrace an active lifestyle by building healthy habits together,” said Fitbit’s product marketing manager, Emily Johnson, when I asked her about the company’s motivation for creating a device for children. “By focusing on fit, function and fun, we’ve created a device that works for kids—in a design built for their smaller size, and with celebratory messages, badges and motivational challenges that are engaging for the whole family.”
She mentions the whole family because to use the Fitbit Ace, kids must use the Fitbit Family app, which connects to their parent or guardians’ own Fitbit account. That’s because the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act dictates that personally identifiable information about children under 13 cannot be collected, unless parents give consent. As such, children cannot have their own Fitbit accounts.
I also respect that while the Fitbit Ace tracks steps and activity level, and sleep, it does not track calories, body fat, or geographic location of the child.
So the news isn’t all bad, but I still wasn’t convinced. I decided to chat with Jennie Ormson, a Toronto-based clinical social worker and mom of three, about my concerns. “In my opinion, fitness trackers for children are a universally bad idea,” she says. “They take all that intrinsic pleasure and delight and curiosity, all the great things they get from play, and make it measurable."
It seems to me that encouraging children to track their fitness risks taking the joy out of physical activity. Ormson agrees. “Exercise [becomes] no longer for their own pleasure, it’s about the numbers that kids reaching.” Because activity trackers deal in quantitative measurements, not qualitative, it changes the motivation. Are you climbing a tree to experience the challenge of climbing the tree and seeing the view from the top? Or are you climbing the tree to accumulate “points” in a system?
All this can lead to obsessive behaviour. Unhealthy fixation on quantitative measurement often manifests itself as anxiety. "One of the biggest things I’m seeing right now in my office is anxiety in kids. And I think the more external forces there are, the more I’m seeing anxiety rise in my practice,” says Ormson.
But what about children who might need a push to get moving? Can’t a fitness tracker help in that situation? After all, according to the World Health Organization, childhood obesity is on the rise, and many parents are concerned about their children spending too much time on screens and not enough time being physically active. If technology is to blame, could technology also be the solution?
It’s possible, but especially in the case of these trackers, it seems fraught with risks. Ormson, for one, argues that parents, not technology, should be encouraging and in fact modelling physical activity. “You need to lace up your shoes and go out with them,” she says. “It’s enhancing the child-parent relationship too, rather than delegating it to something on their wrist.”
Easier said than done, though. For many parents, myself included, modelling positive behaviour for fitness is a struggle. I would rather be on the couch. But it’s a parent’s responsibility to take care of the health of their child, and yep, that includes physical fitness. “It’s work,” admits Ormson. “But rather than thinking about it as something you have to do with your kid, think about it as something you get to do with your kid.” This will require a cognitive shift for you, she says: “It’s not making your kid get physically fit, it’s inspiring your kid to do it. And as an added benefit, you get to do it too.”
So, with the lovely weather finally upon us, I've been heading outdoors with my daughter and a soccer ball. Without any device tracking our movements, and no goal other than to enjoy each other’s company and see how hard and far we can kick the ball. For now, I’m doing it for her. But maybe along the way I’ll find I enjoy it as well.