family · fitness

The quantified life: Children’s fitness trackers and the spectre of parental surveillance

In a world in which you can buy a device for your preschooler to wear that tracks their every movement and allows you to listen to all of their conversations, it’s no surprise that personal sports gadget manufacturers have developed versions of the FitBit, and other FitBit like things, for kids. Of course they have. You could see this one coming a mile away.

See this story on wearable tech for kids.

On the one hand, I can see children really enjoying making a game of physical activity and movement. And that’s great. We all think children should move more and have fun doing it.

On the other hand, I’m a philosopher and one who thinks about childhood and its value, children’s rights, child well being, and family justice. With that hat on, I see shades of Foucault, discipline and punishment and Bentham’s panopticon. I wonder and worry about tracking devices in the hands of controlling parents.

I’m not worried about the alienation of children from free play. I’m not worried about the gamification, as they say, of play for kids. They’re kids. Everything is already a game.

But I am worried about this technology in the hands of parents. It’s the spectre of FitBit as surveillance tool. Not enough steps today? No dessert for you. Or walk your way to television hours. Time to use computers and watch TV must be earned in physical activity. Some experts on child inactivity think that parental over policing of childhood play is part of the problem. Outdoor play, in particular, is seen as dangerous and risky.

And those are the reasonable parents. In this time of heightened fear about the obesity crisis it’s hard to be a reasonable parent. Almost every parent I know is worried about their kids getting fat. Children are on the  front lines of the war against obesity. As we realize how hard is to change adult body weight, the focus of policy makers shifts to the young. The thought is that if we can stop obesity either before it develops or in its early stages, we can avoid the health problems associated with overweight and obesity.

Parental anxiety about the pediatric weigh in looms large. I’ve written about the fear of having fat pets. Worse again if they are your kids, rather than your Bassett hounds, for example.. You’re a bad mother or father, though more likely the former. Dads rarely get blamed.

Consider that a number of families have been split up over obesity and you can see where the fear comes from. In Canada, the United States, and England (other places too probably) obese children have been removed from their homes and placed in foster care.

Here’s one woman’s account of having strangers comment on her right to parent based on the size of her child.

“If you let her keep getting fatter, they are going to take her away from you.” Stunned, I turned to the woman who said this to me. I struggled to find words to respond as she pushed past me, out of the restaurant, and into a waiting car. Having just finished a late meal after our children’s choir concert, I did not expect to find myself explaining to my daughter what this woman had meant when she suggested that my daughter could be “taken away” from me because she is fat (though not remarkably so) and perhaps more to the woman’s point, because I am remarkably fat.”


So another tool for parents to monitor and control their kids movements, in this context, makes a lot of sense. Parents can tell the judge they were doing something. “Look, I bought a FitBit for my chubby child.”

It might not just be the parents. Schools might also get involved given that they’ve been issuing BMI report cards. In a Staten Island schools Gwendolyn Williams, 4’1 and 66 pounds found out she was overweight by peeling back the sticker on top of the BMI number. See This kid is fat.

The spectre of FitBitted teens also put me in mind of Corey Doctorow’s young adult novels. Haven’t read Little Brother? Download it from here. I loved the scene where the young teens fool their school’s security biosensors by putting rocks in their shoes so they’d walk differently. Imagine teen hackers having fun with their FitBits. Yes, of course, I ran a marathon today mom, now hand over that pizza and the Xbox.

There are a slew of reasons to be in favour of children moving more. Mental health and emotional well-being, to be sure, but even improved body composition, regardless of weight. See Fit Kids Have Better Body-Fat Distribution, Study Finds.

So to be clear, I’m not opposed to FitBits for kids. Kids love computers, games, and measuring things. And that’s great. But parents and teachers, let’s leave the kids alone and let them play. I suspect it will all work out better that way.

See this Business Insider story on turning exercise into video games.


6 thoughts on “The quantified life: Children’s fitness trackers and the spectre of parental surveillance

  1. Theproblem here is the belief that slim children should exercise but it is not as pressing for them to do so as chubby children, even if a particular chubby child is in reality in better physical condition than many of the slim children, because, well, what about the future for that fat child?! Plus they’re disgusting me now! And what about the other out-of-shape fat children? What if they see other fat children being told it’s okay for them to have a few extra pounds on them? To my mind, we’re right back to fat-hating and fat-shaming because we’re as a society disgusted with and hateful of fat people, to the degree that we can barely contain our disgust over fat children – so much so actually that we have a difficult time thinking of a fat child as an innocent. We’re drawn to think that they are responsible at least in some way on some level for their condition and that we are helping them by policing them hard to lose those pounds – even if it involves some shaming of them along the way. We forget, if we ever knew that they’re children who are ultra-sensitive to comments from adults and who can be scarred for life by unthinking thoughtless comments made by adults – in other words, that we are cowards who are actually shaming innocents. So this technology, to my mind, will not really be used to help children. Rather, it will be used to police fat children and the people who will use it are hateful and confused and they probably don’t even know it. So I agree with you, Sam. With one caveat. Parents have to lead by example! If they’re not running around outside or doing anything physical themselves (and they can), then I’m sorry but they are extremely poor role models. And the kids for the most part will follow in their parents’ footsteps, barring any shaming or bootcamp-like forced activities. So to my mind, those thoughtless adults had really better look deeply into their own eyes in the mirror before they start in with their garbage toward innocent, heavy children. In short, they should re-learn the fun of physical activity and pass it on to their children. This is simply preferable, to my mind, to emotionally scarring their own children in a cowardly thoughtless manner.

    1. Agree completely about family outdoor exercise time, as fun. Agree about parents leading by example.

    2. I love what you said there at the end. As a homeschooling mom of a 9 year old, I frequently hear parents bemoaning that their kids don’t play outside enough, or, making them do xyz before they can watch tv, etc. But none of these same parents acknowledge their own cell phone use, or offer to play WITH their kids outside. I’m constantly monitoring myself, making sure I offer going outside to play frisbee or saying let’s walk to the library, etc. And, it’s hard, I don’t always hit the mark as much as I want, but I’m sure as hell not gonna judge my kid on her lack of activity while I sit on my ass, reading fit is a feminist issue. 🙂

  2. Certainly it can be a concern and this is my opinion as someone who does not have children but has a partner with 2 adult children. His 2 adult children do have cell phones and have had them for nearly the past decade. (They’re in their 30’s.).

    My partner gets along very well with his children (of course life was different when they were teenagers, early 20’s). He even provides advice to an adult son in setting up his butcher shop, and other fatherly advice..etc. But my partner doesn’t (EMPHASIS) have a cell phone. He is not having the handy dandy tech tool to be tempted to advice, monitor his son’s business at his own whim.

    I can’t even begin to be amazed by some (boomer) parents who have live at-home adult children in their 20’s and who are phoning up parents at work, for non-emergency things via personal cellphone at the parent’s workplace and the parent does answer the phone in a business meeting. I’ve witnessed this several times per month where I work. Frankly, it’s abit disturbing.. and I am speaking as someone who had protective parents but grew up in a time of no cellphone/Internet.

    So….this fitbit tech monitoring tool is just another temptation as the child grows older to be “monitored” by the parent, or at least make it harder for the parent to gradually let go and let the child become independent in action.

    While a good parent does want an obese child to become healthier, prepares reasonably healthy meals…and encourages the child, etc. There’s only so much the parent can do and the child needs to find his/her way –especially if the child is an older teen. The child will react the opposite and begin to resent the parent.

    I vouch for this because my youngest sister was noticeably overweight in her early 20’s and my parents would drop gentle reminders. My mother has been and continues to be a healthy food cook.

    Then sis got/lived in her own home and got a job….she’s a doctor, folks.

    She lost 50 lbs. from jogging and changes in diet.

    The fitbit…sounds like another marketing tech tool with some limited value.

  3. I had an interesting discussion with my 3 1/2 year old last week that I find relevant to this conversation. He told me that he wants a big belly like his Papou (Greek for grandpa) and that he needs to eat a lot of food to get one. On one hand I was so happy that my son thought that his Papou was special enough to want to be like him and that he didn’t see someone with a “big belly” as a problem. On the other hand, as a fitness professional, I was kind of taken aback by the route that he knew to get that “big belly”. And even more so that he was okay with eating so much food to achieve his goal.

    This same child is a great eater of many healthy items. We have been lucky in this regard. He has a normal 3 1/2 year old build with a little bit of a belly and still a little bit of baby chunky cheeks. I think he is perfect as he is. He eats almost anything I set in front of him and asks for healthy snacks like almonds and fruit. He loves broccoli and peas and more recently has decided that Popeye is his idol so has started to eat more spinach. He watches some tv each day and does some “school” on the computer, but he also plays non stop the rest of the day. He is looking forward to turning 5 for a few reasons.

    The first is that I told him he didn’t have to ride in the jogging stroller any more and could do some “runs” of his own when he turns five. He tells me all the ways he “exercises” each day by running and playing soccer and walking and jumping and dancing. The second and third reasons are that he gets to try root beer when he turns 5 and that he can try fast food when he turns 5. We chose that arbitrary age because he will be in school and most likely be exposed to the ideas of soda and McDonalds by his peers. He has told me that the fast food he wants to try is “Taco Bells” because they have quesadillas on the menu.

    I guess, all in all I’m proud of my kid for being who he is and being active and healthy, but each day I struggle too with teaching him acceptance of all others so that he doesn’t feel “shamed” or the need to shame others. All three of his grandparents have big bellies and we love them for who they are. We have talked about being healthy, but we also want him to be a kid and never feel like he can’t try or experience new things. We talked about how too much fast food is bad for you because it can make you sick, but we don’t label any foods as bad foods (except peaches because he’s allergic). I think there are great tools out there for helping kids to be more active, but how about just trying to teach moderation instead of making them incessant trackers of calories ingested and burned?

Comments are closed.