Fitness trackers are working their way into all of our exercise routines: with bands that record everything from your heartbeat to your steps to your sleep patterns, there’s a device for everyone.
As adults, we see these fitness trackers as a great way to stay on top of our workouts and chart our improving abilities.
But should kids be using these, too?
Many companies are marketing versions of mobile workout devices to children in elementary school, saying that getting kids interested in health and fitness will combat the childhood obesity crisis. Apps and devices that incorporate game-like aspects may be particularly motivational.
Others, however, say that strapping fitness bands to kids’ wrists may take away the fun of running around.
They say that reducing exercise to numbers and goals, rather than allowing children to simply play, will take away internal motivation to workout both during childhood and later. Some also argue that allowing parents to monitor their child’s every move, by way of a fitness app or tracker, could result in an unhealthy relationship.
What’s clear is that fitness trackers are here to stay for a while.
Educate yourself on potential pros and cons of the digital health movement before handing a device to your child.
Fighting Childhood Obesity
There’s no doubt that obesity among children and teens is a problem in the U.S.: according to Lets Move, rates have tripled over the last three decades, with almost a third of children today classed as overweight or obese.
Several companies are marketing fitness trackers as a means of reversing that trend. GeoPalz is at the forefront of the group, releasing an iBitz PowerKey that syncs with iOS to track steps and a child’s daily “Moderate to Vigorous Physical Activity” (MVPA).
Based on how much activity it tracks, iBitz awards a child points, which he or she can use to buy prizes or play in an online arcade. The company has also incorporated a pet care game into the iBitz app, allowing children to convert their steps into digital food and exercise that keeps the online pet alive. GeoPalz’ website specifically states that the device is intended for children from ages 5-12.
Slightly older kids and teens are often drawn to Nike’s Fuelband, which is designed to connect with social media and to track your amount and intensity of movement over the day. It allows both children and adults to set goals and give themselves reminders to exercise. Especially for older kids, the “cool” factor of using the Fuelband may be significant.
There’s little hard data on whether these fitness trackers will help combat childhood obesity in the long run, but Michelle Garrison, of the Seattle Children’s Research Institute, noted that monitors like iBitz fit into what she calls the “game-ification of health, where almost everything can be turned into…a video game” and that “kids really respond to that.”
Research on adults is more conclusive, showing that using a fitness app over the course of a year can result in weight loss, according to a study from the Archives of Internal Medicine.
We clearly need to address childhood obesity, but some argue that fitness trackers aren’t the way to do that.
Part of the joy of childhood is running around without a set goal: rather than going for a “jog,” like we do as adults, kids can simply run. While proponents of digital health devices say that kids can still do this without worrying about their iBitz pet or points on a Fuelband, others say that providing external rewards for playing takes away some of the fun. In essence, by setting up a reward and points system, we may be removing internal motivation to exercise, which could hurt those kids down the road.
Others, like Huffington Post writer Cassie Slane, worry that it’s parents who may cause the problem. Slane says that “tracking a child’s activity through the day could be a slippery slope when it comes to a child’s self-esteem. Imagine a parent telling junior that he needs to do a couple of laps around the house to balance out the pizza he ate for lunch because he didn’t take enough steps during the day.”
Of course, there’s nothing keeping a parent from saying that to his or her child without the aid of a fitness tracker, but the question is whether this type of device can foster or increase potentially unhealthy relationships.
As research on digital health increases, and medical experts continue to chart the childhood obesity crisis, we may get a clearer picture of how these fitness apps and devices fit into kids’ world.
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