Tuesday 23 July 2019

Fitbits for kids: is there cause for concern?

Fitness trackers can be a great way to promote activity, but for some children they can encourage obsessive behaviour, writes Tanya Sweeney

Fitbit fans Helen England and her daughter Maddie from Nenagh, Co Tipperary. Photo: Don Moloney
Fitbit fans Helen England and her daughter Maddie from Nenagh, Co Tipperary. Photo: Don Moloney
Fitbit fans Helen England and her daughter Maddie from Nenagh, Co Tipperary. Photo: Don Moloney

Tanya Sweeney

Most parents will be familiar with pester power, though few could have predicted the latest playground must-have. Yet when you think about it, the rise of the Fitbit (a fitness tracking device worn on the wrist) is down to a perfect storm.

In the face of a growing obesity epidemic, parents and schools are keen to highlight the importance of activity. Add to this a young interest in all things technology and gadgets, and the Fitbit craze has been a long time coming. It's certainly easy to see why the devices appeal to children: they feel sophisticated because they look like the wearables they've seen on grown-ups.

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Helen England has long been interested in running and fitness, and her daughters Maddie (8) and Kate (7) grew up in a health-conscious household. "Maddie used to want to go running with us, and even now is really interested in running," says Helen, a writer who runs her own food business, GingerGirl.ie. "We would talk about health and healthy habits - we never talk about weight or fatness or skinniness in this house."

A couple of the girls in Maddie's class began wearing Fitbits, prompting the child to ask for one of her own. Helen started researching them online. "My gut reaction was 'not a chance', but then I saw the Fitbit Ace (designed for kids aged 8 and over)," says Helen. "It just tracks steps and sleep - you can decide what's on the display. I have the app on my phone and to get into the account you have a 'kid view', which Maddie rarely looks at, and a 'parent view'. We were sure to check the privacy and location settings, and did our research around it."

As a child who "loves rules and regulations", the device is a good fit for Maddie's already active lifestyle. "I wanted it to be habit-forming," explains Helen. "As kids, we ran everywhere, but I wouldn't let Maddie run to the nearby fields like we used to. So for me, effort needs to be made to get the habit formed so that it's a part of her day, like eating breakfast or going to bed. If she had an obsessive personality or was a wee worrier, it would definitely be gone out of the house."

Similarly, Dubliner Maria Delaney's 10-year-old daughter Abigail was already a hugely active child when she got her Fitbit Ace last Christmas.

Monitoring the app data could create anxiety for some kids. Stock photo
Monitoring the app data could create anxiety for some kids. Stock photo

"She's in a running club with older girls who had one, and though she didn't go on about it, she said she wanted one," recalls Maria. "She enjoys wearing it - yesterday she had a high step count, but then, on other days, she'd only do 8,000 steps. Instead of getting worried about it, she would say she was having a 'quiet day'. She never puts any pressure on herself. Days go by where she doesn't comment on it at all.

"She did mention this week that two of her friends had gotten trackers which shows them the calories used, and I told her she didn't need that," adds Maria. "I don't want her to have access to that information."

It's worth pointing out here that though fitness trackers aimed at children are usually a simplified version of the adult version, and don't have calorie counters, anecdotal evidence suggests that many children are pressurising their parents into buying them the adult versions to appear more sophisticated.

So is there cause for concern? Childcare experts have issued a caveat, noting that not every child will enjoy it as a mere addendum to a healthy lifestyle. In a wider sense, child psychotherapist Joanna Fortune has noticed a "heightened focus and emotional charge around health and fitness" in her own professional practice.

"It's great that children are becoming more aware of activity and healthy food choices, but, for me, kids need to get out there and play and explore their environment," she says. "I just don't feel there is additional benefit to know how many steps there were in an activity session. Instead, we need to make activity appealing, inviting and consistent.

"I certainly wouldn't be giving a tracker to children displaying a heightened emotional charge around food and their body," she adds. "You need to be shifting the narrative toward celebrating 'what my body can do' that's got nothing to do with data or tracking."

Harriet Parsons, Training and Development Manager for eating disoder charity Bodywhys says that certain types of children will be susceptible to a less than functional relationship with fitness tracking devices.

"It's like selfies - they are perfectly fine for most people, but there's a certain type of vulnerable person who will take on board only one negative comment amid hundreds of positive ones," she explains.

"I think drawing attention to numbers and counting and setting goals creates the potential not to reach them, which can compound a feeling of 'I'm not okay the way I am' in some children. For kids who are already vulnerable - their self-esteem isn't great, they measure themselves against external markers, they're perfectionists who don't like not achieving - those situations can potentially trigger feelings of 'I'm not good enough'. You have to be really careful with younger kids around messages to do with fitness and food. I'm not sure if monitoring yourself in terms of data is the type of lifestyle change that meets a child's long-term health needs."

Colman Noctor, Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist at St Patrick's Hospital, Dublin, is in agreement. "Kids tend to get into their interests obsessively," he says. "If an eight-year-old is into Avengers, he's into it full tilt, morning noon and night. And when you are over-informed, that can create an anxiety." Colman points to other dangerous flashpoints that parents need to be aware of - children are fixating on body image at a much younger age, while competitiveness is also part and parcel of the childhood experience.

"Traditionally, we would have seen eating disorders in second year [of secondary school] and now we see it in fourth or fifth class," he says. "We encourage competition in children - whether it's collecting Pokemon cards or measuring steps on their Fitbits, there will always be a sense of 'my daddy is bigger than your daddy'."

Colman advises parents to explore the motivations behind their child wanting a Fitbit. "It could be that they're pestering their parents for one to fit in with their peers," he says. "A nephew of mine was bursting to get a specific game, then he played it once."

For parents faced with the might of pester power, psychotherapist Fortune says: "Say something like, 'I have one, why don't you come on a walk with me and we'll know how many steps we did'. It's a good way to get some one-on-one time with your child. If you see that the child is fixated on the numbers, you know they're not ready."

"Do a little bit of research," advises Maria. "Look at the models aimed at kids, which offer the basic amount of information. They don't need to know about things like distances or calories. Would I give it to a child whose thinking was heading that way? I think I'd probably tread carefully."

Irish Independent

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