Why fitness trackers may not be the wisest Christmas gift for kids

I’m all for encouraging kids to have an active lifestyle but do we really want children, some who haven’t even learned to tell the time yet, viewing physical activity as something to measure rather than something to do because it’s fun and makes them feel good?

“Activity trackers might look like cute little gadgets that promote health giving behaviour,” says Psychologist and director of BodyMatters Australasia Sarah McMahon. “However ultimately they can be diet talk masquerading as a watch.”

McMahon says that activity trackers have the danger of normalising an eating disorder mentality by teaching children that they literally have to earn their food step by step.

“They encourage a focus on numbers at any cost and encourage polarising thinking about physical movement such as ‘I haven’t completed X steps, I’m lazy’, or ‘I’m a slob’, or ‘I’m hopeless’”, says McMahon.

Of course not everyone who uses an activity tracker will develop an eating disorder, but McMahon has observed that activity trackers are becoming increasingly common in initiating and maintaining disordered eating and body anxiety.

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“Certainly the use of activity trackers may start off with the best of intentions, however a common experience amongst people suffering from eating disorders is the innocent pursuit of health that went terribly wrong,” says McMahon.

At this moment in time your child might not seem the type to develop a dysfunctional relationship with exercise and food, but McMahon warns that the message that activity trackers send to your child now about exercise and weight may not rear its head until much later in a child’s life.

There’s also the issue of the kinds of activities that these devices measure and reward. Professor Gary Miller from the department of health and exercise science at Wake Forest University says that activity trackers promote a type of exercise that is not necessarily fun for children.

Speaking to specialist health publication Infectious Diseases in Children, Professor Miller said “One of my biggest gripes is when adults try to increase physical activity for children, [t]hey think they will want to do what adults want to do. They place them on a treadmill or have them walk around a track instead of promoting play.”

After the initial excitement has worn off, an activity tracker has the potential to turn a child’s playtime into a chore, a punishment or a source of guilt and shame when the child inevitably fails to meet their targets. Rather than helping your child become more active, an activity tracker may have the opposite effect, turning them off exercise all together.

If we want our kids to develop life-long healthy physical activity habits then exercise needs to be something that kids want to do because they enjoy it – not because their activity tracker will beep at them if they don’t.

If your child already has a fitness tracker, or you are contemplating popping one under the tree for Christmas, Sarah McMahon recommends making sure your child knows that health is much more than a daily step count or a number on the scales.

“Health is an ongoing and multifaceted process that includes physical movement which is regular, sustainable and enjoyable,” says McMahon. “It also includes relational, psychological, intellectual, financial and physical components.”

And if your child isn’t an enthusiastic walker or runner, try to find activities that they do enjoy. That might be group sports or dance, where the exercise is complemented by socialising or aesthetics.

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Whatever you do, McMahon advises against entering your child’s weight information into an activity tracker. Focusing on weight when children are still growing is likely to do more harm than good.

“Kids are living in an era when weight gain is associated with becoming fat, not becoming a tween/ teen/ adult. Kids need to grow which includes putting on weight.”

So before giving into your child’s pester-power for an activity tracker this year, consider that in addition to a fancy new watch you may also giving your child body anxiety and laying the foundation for bigger problems to come.

Kasey Edwards is the author of the young adult series, The Chess Raven Chronicles , under the pen name Violet Grace.

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