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.