Every Step You Take

Should You Buy Your Kid A Fitness Tracker?

Health wearables are a popular gift this holiday season, but experts caution that they run a risk of promoting harmful behavior or a skewed, narrow idea of health.

by Rina Raphael

In 2019, Claudia bought fitness trackers for her two elementary school-age children because she thoroughly enjoyed her Fitbit. At bedtime, she could hear them trying to get their “last steps” before hitting the hay. Competitive, just like their mom, she’d think.

Over time, Claudia (who preferred not to use her real name) noticed a troubling trend: she was increasingly consumed with steps and calorie counting. She monitored her every move. That, along with the kids’ new bedtime ritual, forced her to reassess the family’s tech dependence. “Having young children using them worries me because I never want them to become obsessed with [their weight],” said Claudia, who ultimately banned the gadgets. “I think they are actually very dangerous.”

Fitbit’s kid-version Ace does not display calories burned, but tracking one’s health can have unintended consequences. While wearables are often effective in promoting movement, experts caution that they also run the slight risk of promoting harmful behavior or a skewed, narrow idea of health. More than that, they share doubts that they even work as intended — a crucial point worth exploring since fitness trackers and other health wearables will be popular gifts this holiday season, as more brands have introduced kid-friendly versions.

Take Garmin’s recently released Vívofit Jr. 3, which comes in a Disney princess theme (in which Ariel leads athletic adventures); or Fitbit’s Ace 3 wristband, which employs Minions to remind kids to walk; or the Little Tikes Tobi Smartwatch, which tracks steps via an animated robot. Nearly all promise to facilitate better fitness habits, make chores fun, analyze sleep quality, or gamify exercise with collectible badges. And they’re all the more enticing to parents faced with alarming stats: children’s fitness levels have declined over the decades, with the pandemic further compounding sedentary time. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends kids aim for a daily hour of active time, but many parents struggle to find accessible or affordable activities. Often, they’re up against tech. American kids ages 8 to 12 spend an average of four to six hours a day watching or using screens. By now parents realize that technology is as inevitable as another Marvel movie. It's here, it’s everywhere, and there’s no fighting it. Some might think, Why not make the best of it? Let’s at least use gadgets to get kids off TikTok.

The question is, however: How much do wearables help? And is introducing kids to a step-counting habit really such a good idea?

“It's kind of a 50/50 situation,” says Dr. Blaise Nemeth, M.D., a pediatric orthopedist at UW Health Kids Pediatric Fitness Clinic in Madison, Wisconsin, and an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. Nemeth, who specializes in behavioral changes to increase activity, notes that every child is unique, and as such, no uniform advice applies to all.

If a kid doesn’t like sports, a tracker could be beneficial in reminding them to get more movement. For neurodivergent kids or those with special needs, health wearables can prove invaluable in monitoring vital signs like heart rate spikes.

But tracking can also potentially encourage obsessive behavior and compulsive exercise. Though rare, experts and parents have seen children performing jumping jacks or running across the room at the end of the day in hopes of satisfying their gadgets’ goals. Some stay up late to “get in all their steps.” Kids can become laser-focused, just as they would with a video game. And in time, health is merely reduced to steps taken. (Children with anxious tendencies are likely not ideal candidates.)

A 2019 U.K. study followed 100 13- to 14-year-olds wearing Fitbits for eight weeks, and found that the device sometimes promoted “negative feelings.” While a portion compulsively checked their progress, others “began to feel bad about themselves” if they failed to achieve 10,000 steps a day. As one student said, “It puts pressure on you.”

“Why would you turn childhood into just how many steps they take? That's what armies do,” says Lenore Skenazy, president of Let Grow, a nonprofit that promotes childhood independence and resilience. “It's so reductivist.”

Self-surveillance tools, especially in social or educational settings, can even lead to counterproductive peer comparison and competition, the study found. Some of the students aimed to beat their friends’ step counts, with one participant attempting 25,000 steps in a day just to be declared the victor. “You can sometimes feel guilty,” a student told researchers. “Like when I first got this Fitbit, if I hadn’t done 10,000 steps before I went to bed, I used to just walk up and down the corridor because I couldn’t let someone else beat me.”

Trackers might make fitness more meaningful (you’re working towards a goal!), but focusing on output can suck the fun out of activities. One 2016 study of adults found that while quantifying movement might increase our tendency for an activity, it can simultaneously reduce how much we enjoy doing it. Monitoring our every move starts to feel like a chore, and we can develop a negative association with exercise. “Why would you turn childhood into just how many steps they take? That's what armies do,” says Lenore Skenazy, president of Let Grow, a nonprofit that promotes childhood independence and resilience. “It's so reductivist.”

Both child and parent can develop an unhealthy fixation. On social media, parents admit they check their kid’s stats at the end of the day, worrying should they ever fail to meet their daily “requirement.” If they’re alerted that their child didn’t get enough quality sleep, for example, they might be unnecessarily concerned: trackers only have a 78% accuracy rate, according to recent research. The wearer, meanwhile, might feel fine but is suddenly convinced they are groggy because the gadget told them they should be — or they feel significantly worse once it’s confirmed. Known as the “nocebo effect,” sleep trackers possess the ability to make us feel worse about our health.

Younger children, meanwhile, face different obstacles such as wrist-wear annoyance, understanding the data, or simply dealing with upkeep: charging these things can be annoying, and kids can be forgetful. (Note: Newer models, like the latest Garmin, boast year-long battery life.) Some kids get frustrated when wristbands don’t accurately capture activities, then find themselves repeatedly waving their arms to collect their “points.”

The most likely scenario, of course, may simply be that kids will quickly lose interest in the pricey gadgets. An NIH-funded clinical study explored whether a technology-mediated health intervention motivated kids to be more active, and included Fitbits to track changes in 422 kids over a school year. Among kids who just received Fitbits, “there was an increase [in physical activity] in the short term, but it only lasted for the first months. Then they went right back to normal,” said Dr. Michael D. Schmidt, Ph.D., associate professor of kinesiology and director of the Physical Activity Measurement Laboratory at the University of Georgia, Athens, who was a co-investigator on this study. Nearly 50% of the kids studied wore their Fitbits consistently over the first half of the study, with the numbers falling thereafter.

(That’s not so different from adults, by the way: One 2016 study found that nearly half of consumers ditch their activity tracker within several months.)

Lana,* a mom of three who also asked not to be identified, bought a fitness tracker for her 8-year-old son, only to return it within a few weeks. “We tried to get him excited about it but it just never took.” Her youngest child, age 6, also wanted a tracker because “everyone else had one.” That too didn’t pan out. “I don't think he understood what those steps meant,” she said, “and I don't think he really cared.”

One study found that while quantifying movement might increase our tendency for an activity, it can simultaneously reduce how much we enjoy doing it.

Anecdotally, Nemeth finds trackers more helpful with teens managing busy, extracurricular-filled schedules. Tech can help connect how physical activity impacts other areas of their lives: How does it affect sleep, mood, concentration, and ability to complete schoolwork? Do they feel better when they move more? For certain teens, this can be useful information.

Bottom line: If you want kids to be active, “it's important you try to increase their intrinsic motivation to be active,” stresses Schmidt. “Meaning, it's not coerced in any way or to get explicit rewards.”

And, anyway, what do we even mean when we say we want kids to be “more active”? When parents use the phrase, they often mean their kids need more exercise, imagining running, jumping jacks, or calisthenics. But unless a kid expresses interest in a specific exercise like running, most children don't naturally engage in formal exercise. “Kids, especially young kids [pre-teen], like spontaneous movement,” says Schmidt. “That's what we want to encourage.”

Kids are hardwired to play, experts stress. And in free play, movement happens automatically. They don’t necessarily need adults — or tech — intervening, measuring, and suggesting movement. “Kids just need a chance to play with each other,” says Skenazy. She recommends finding other similar-minded parents, gathering kids together, and letting them have at it. “If kids are having fun and allowed to do unstructured play, they will be running around like crazy.”

Before pulling the tracking trigger…

You know your child best, so you’re the best judge as to whether they’re mature enough to properly use (and not lose) a wearable. If you’re interested in getting your kids active, experts share some advice:

Understand the privacy issue.

With wearables, there is concern over third-party companies accessing stored personal information, not to mention the risk of security breaches. Some come with built-in GPS features, which capture your child’s location, daily routine, and more.

"It's the amalgamation of all these data points," says Jon Lasser, a psychologist and co-author of Tech Generation: Raising Balanced Kids in a Hyper-Connected World. "So we may have a Roku that tracks what we're watching, and that may get correlated with our steps which may get correlated with our shopping and all kinds of things. ... Many of these fitness trackers are part of that big data that gets monetized."

Analyze your intentions.

Lasser suggests parents ask a few questions before investing in devices: What do I hope to gain from this? What does my child expect to gain from this? And what do they enjoy doing physically? “If the desire is to encourage exercise, there are a lot of ways to do that without buying a fitness tracker,” notes Lasser. Consider old-school alternatives like a skateboard, bicycle, or trampoline.

Sometimes children want a gadget simply because they saw a commercial for it or other kids already have it. While peer pressure is real, parents shouldn’t fear letting their kids be late adopters. “There’s not a lot of benefit to rushing tech use for younger kids,” says Lasser. “Let them grow into that when they're ready.”

Explain healthy use of the devices.

Encourage children to responsibly use tracking features as part of a healthy lifestyle and emphasize that data shouldn’t dictate how they feel about activities, and more importantly, about themselves. Remind them that stats aren’t the be-all and end-all: You can’t measure fun. You can’t track adventure. You can’t evaluate climbing a tree.

“It goes back to asking kids what they enjoy doing that’s physical and giving them opportunities to do things for pleasure,” says Lasser. “It’s not because they get some sort of external reinforcement from seeing data about what they've done, but the pure joy of whatever it is.”

Practice what you preach.

The UW Health Kids Fitness Clinic found the most success in kids changing their behaviors when they saw their parents model those behaviors. Families should consider folding in group activities like hikes, walks, and outdoor games. Pressed for time? Try adding in more movement during your daily routine or errands, like parking a little further away from the grocery store or taking the stairs instead of an escalator. If parents want to get their kids moving, they've got to first set an example. “Parents need to put down their devices,” says Lasser, “and get outside and play with their kids.”

Experts:

Dr. Blaise Nemeth, M.D., a pediatric orthopedist at UW Health Kids Pediatric Fitness Clinic in Madison, Wis., and an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

Lenore Skenazy, president of Let Grow, a nonprofit that promotes childhood independence and resilience.

Dr. Michael D. Schmidt, Ph.D., associate professor of kinesiology and director of the Physical Activity Measurement Laboratory at the University of Georgia, Athens.

Jon Lasser, a psychologist and co-author of Tech Generation: Raising Balanced Kids in a Hyper-Connected World.