We have noticed a huge increase in the numbers of children with wearable technology in classrooms all over the country. One of the most popular by far are Fitbit Ace for children. We have a number of serious concerns regarding the use of this wearable technology and the potential for harm it has, especially for young children. So we thought we might share with you, why we believe that wearable technologies like Fitbit are not really suitable for children.
Children learn through the acquisition of new information. When a child does something right we reward the child with kind words. This can encourage the child to repeat a positive behaviour. Similarly, when a child does something wrong, we highlight their error, in order to prevent it happening again. It’s through the use of rewards and guidance that human behaviour can be reinforced. Regardless of whether the human is an adult or a child, we are far more likely to repeat an action, if it is followed by a positive or satisfying result. This is known as Edward Thorndike’s Law Of Effect.
For many years now technology companies have hijacked the psychological concepts of conditioning. They have exploited our reward system, to encourage continued and prolonged engagement with their platforms. Think of the LIKE button for example, introduced by Facebook. This form of conditioning was so strong, its impact caused millions of people to become trapped in social media validation feedback loops. Relentlessly posting content in the hope of validation from friends and peers, all while validating the content of others. It had such a negative impact that Instagram have now removed a user’s ability to see the number of Like’s they received.
If we can understand the concept and impact of Likes on Social Media users, consider what you’re giving to a child when you hand them a wearable technology like a Fitbit. There is a case to be made that wearable technologies like Fitbit can encourage more physical activity for some inactive children. However, wearable technology does not perform that activity for the child. Only a child with a little help from a parent, sports club or school can do that. So wearable technology is not the answer for an inactive child, activity is. A very basic analogy for addressing inactivity and weight might be, eat less and move more.
When a child receives wearable technology like a Fitbit, the device will begin to monitor their activity, how many steps, heart rate, sleeping pattern etc. This affords a micro examination of a childs life at the touch of a button. All this sounds great until you realise, this device encourages goal setting. Many people describe the moment of reaching their goal as somewhat of an anti-climax. Especially if the feat cannot be repeated or is beaten by another. The moment 10,000 steps a day becomes your goal, upon achieving it there’s little point in stopping at 10,000 or 9,999 steps the next day. Most will feel the need to set another goal, perhaps more than 10,000. Now the problem becomes, what it took to achieve the goal becomes mediocre. For a person again to realise the same sense of achievement in reaching a goal, it has to be surpassed.
Simply doing a little more can quickly develop in to the need, or obsession to do far more. We need to be mindful of the social comparison people make both online and off. A person’s sense of self-worth can quickly become based on a perception achievement to be compared against others. There is no point in really having numbers, unless they can’t be compared or contrasted with someone else’s. Without comparison they become meaningless. The online world affords the opportunity for an endless comparison with others. Unfortunately, we may not always arrive at the correct conclusion about ourselves, if the comparison we make isn’t based on a level playing field. Often the comparisons people make are more aspirational than reality based, focusing more on what they still have to do, rather than what they have done or achieved to date.
Numbers can also be quite cruel. The whole purpose of a wearable technologies like fitbit is to generate numbers. Failing to meet the daily required amount of activity, will not go unnoticed by the device. It makes the user aware of their failure. Discovering you have failed to your daily goal can be motivating for some. But it can also have a psychologically detrimental impact on others. If you are constantly reminded on a daily basis of your failures, it can lead to harmful side-effects.
If a goal becomes unachievable, despite a person’s best intentions and efforts, having the failure identified daily by numbers is a constant visible reminder. A very specific numerice reminder, that you did not do enough. People can now obsess over numbers in a digital age. Counting everything from calories to steps is fine if you’re a professional athlete or an adult. However, if you’re a child, or a teen struggling with self-confidence, self-esteem, or have any form of body dysmorphia issue, numbers can dictate and reinforce maladaptive thoughts and behaviours.
Even if a person were to meet their goal every day, how would they feel on the one day that their not able to complete a scheduled daily goal? A day when a very prolonged continuous streak of activity for the first time broke. A broken streak of several days may not be a much of a problem to overcome emotionally or psychologically. However, a six month, or year-long daily streak of activity, can have a far more signifigantly negative impact if eventually broken. For many of those who battle any form of addiction, the challenge of beginning at zero again, is far a more difficult challenge than maintaining their abstinence.
Counting can lead to, and encourage failure. It all depends on how much significance a person places on the amount of streak days they aquire. Having to start all over again, can be a challenge far beyond the ability of some. Looking up at an achievement from the bottom, can impose a feeling of despair so great, it can completely discourage a person from starting all over again.
Numbers and humans sometimes make a terrible combination. Counting can easily become a very compulsive behaviour. For young people, many of whom are struggling to navigate a world obsessed with body image, and self-esteem issues, due to image sharing based social media, adding wearable technologies like Fitbit is only a recipe of disaster. Now children have to face the dilemma of self-comparison with images filtered beyond recognition, while a device on their wrist dictates its own projection of their self-worth.
We also shouldn’t forget that it’s not just your physical activity that wearable technologies like Fitbit monitors. The device can also monitor sleeping patterns. For those who have difficulty sleeping at night due to insomnia, wearable technology may make matters worse. The term orthosomnia, relates to a person having an unhealthy obsession with achieving a perfect sleep. Research has shown that people can becoming obsessed with the data. This then had a negative impact on their sleep, with some believing they had a genuine medical problem.
Ironicaliy adding a device to a bedroom that monitors sleep, appears to detrimental to the ability to have a good night’s sleep. Users of the technology now instead have to contend with sleep debt percentages, heart rate dips, sleep rhythms, graphs of sleep disruption and comparisons to other users. All of which only introduce additional stressors which didn’t previously exist. Perhaps, sometimes ignorance is not only bliss, but it may be better for your overall wellbeing.
There is also the huge issue of the digital age consent. Remember the pernonal data harvested belongs to children. Is it in a child’s best interests to give their consent to the blind use of their data before the digital age of consent? As a parent, do you fully understand the reason for digital age of consent? Every child has entitlement to have their data protected? Do we really want companies to have access to data regarding a child’s activity or inactivity? Do we know who will have assess to the data? What happens to the personal data given to third parties?
We still have no idea or understanding of the possible negative implications for personal data. Generating this kind of data on a young child or teen is absolutely not in their best interests. Children have the same entitlement to anonymity we took for granted as children. As parents we really need to respect and protect that.
Wearable technologies like Fitbits are not really suitable for children. We should permitted children to be children. Generally once a child is outside, they’re moving. If they are moving, there is no need to micro analyse each individual step they take. We shouldn’t feel the need to encourage any child to count their steps. Nor should they feel the need to monitor their heart rate, or sleep. Not unless there’s a really good medical reason for doing so. There is no point putting wearable technology on an inactive child who sits in everyday using a digital device. It will do nothing to promote their wellbeing. However, putting them outside where they can move will.