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Kids and fitness trackers: the holiday edition (not)


TW: weightloss mentioned; negative self talk examples included.

By MarthaFitat55

Almost two years ago this March coming, I wrote about targetting kids for weight loss campaigns and fitness trackers. The nutshell: not a great idea because kids are vulnerable.

I was reminded of that piece when this article came across my feed describing how UNICEF, the United Nations children’s fund has developed a tracker that allows kids to feed other children when they reach certain step goals.

I’m going to let that sink in for a moment.

North American kids — largely affluent, well fed, and probably mostly white — are being told use this tracker and you will feed the poor somewhere else.

You can’t escape the irony here; the colonialist, patriarchally coated irony of having privileged kids walking their walk to good works.

Images shows young white female-presenting child looking at a quarter cupcake on a plate.  Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

Article author Angela Lashbrooks says this about the idea: A punitive or even rewards-based system to encourage young people to move more won’t be effective in the mid or long term, and could cause or worsen obsessive thoughts and behaviors in some kids.

That’s because there isn’t a lot of good evidence showing trackers work with kids and teens:

One 2019 study found that teenage subjects actually became less likely to engage in moderate or vigorous physical activity after five weeks of wearing a Fitbit. It suggested that the tracker appeared to weaken the inherent motivation and self-determination needed to compel kids to be active. Another study, from 2017, saw similar results: After an initial surge in interest in exercise spanning a few weeks, the kids mostly stopped engaging with the trackers and actively resisted them, claiming that they were inaccurate and therefore not trustworthy.

While our kids on this continent are mostly sedentary and we should be concerned with the amount of screen time they engage in, getting kids to wear trackers and get their fitness on by appealing to an altruistic goal is problematic.

Kids follow what they see. Kids also know when they are being gamed. I can’t imagine what it would be like to wake up on Christmas morning and discover a tracker under the tree. Given all the negative messages we send out about size and what fitness looks like, I can see the thought processes now:

Parental units gave me a tracker! Trackers are used by people who want to lose weight. Parents must think I need to lose weight. Parents must think I am fat. Fat people are ugly. Parents must think I am ugly. Parents won’t love me if I’m fat. Parents won’t love me anymore if I don’t lose weight. …

Unless a tracker is something the child has spontaneously on their own expressed an interest in, there are better ways to get your kid engaged in fitness than planting this kind of non-gift under the tree.

If you want to focus on a healthier, more active lifestyle, buy swim passes for everyone. Or sign them up for that bike repair workshop so they can fix their bikes on their own. Or plot walking routes in your community and track the steps as a world wide adventure.

If social action is on your list of things, then talk as a family about supporting community agencies who help vulnerable kids and families throughout the year and not just in holiday season. This article offers some great insights into why giving should be a daily thing and not a holiday one-off.

Gifts that focus on self-improvement aren’t really gifts in my opinion. They are projections of your own desires. How about you? What do you think would be more appropriate for gift giving?

MarthaFitat55 is not a fan of self-improvement gifts for any occasion. She gets her fit on through walking, swimming, yoga and powerlifting. But not all at once.

One thought on “Kids and fitness trackers: the holiday edition (not)

  1. If the recipients have any intrinsic interest in gadgets, then encouraging some physical motion has to be better than encouraging stationary screen time with similar altruistic sponsorship programs, e.g. Freerice trivia game or Ecosia web search engine. This positive point for the gadget is that attention to advertisements is not the behaviour being encouraged.

    To both avoid stigma surrounding fitness gadgets, and avoid the negative reinforcement that “a lazy day means some poor kid goes hungry” (which is the conclusion of that article on, one might try a mobile app that offers incentive to move — at least one verifies using GPS which means you must go outside to earn.

    To the point of gadgets being “inaccurate and therefore not trustworthy”: This adds a second gamification of discovering both why this is so and how to trick the device. Sadly, this easily adds to any frustration with technology–these tools that are supposed to help us but so often hinder us instead.

    My take on gifts is that the gifter should intend a positive experience. The beauty of sparkly jewellery. The comfort of new socks. The adventures of a new story (book, screen, theatre, guided tour). The appreciation of a friend’s insight for improving your life experience in any way. If the gifter empathises with the recipient, then all these positive, gratitude-worthy experiences come across as a kind of self-improvement.

    Appropriate gift giving ideas? Choose the easy way and select registry/wish-listed items already identified by the recipient! (That only applies if the recipient empathises with your task far enough in advance.)

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