Fitness trackers putting kids at risk, says child psychologist
With technology constantly changing and new gadgets on the market, it's becoming more common to see kids using wearable fitness trackers.
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Anne Wareham, a child psychologist with the Janeway's Lifestyle Program, said if these devices, such as the FitBit, aren't used properly, those kids can be at risk.
Just like calorie counting can lead to eating disorders, being too focused again on something external … can predispose you to that kind of thinking.- Anne Wareham
"It can be a good thing, it can be a bad thing. It depends really on whether you are in control — or whether the FitBit is in control," said Wareham.
"The whole idea of wellness is lost. Children need to play. They need to be active and to have a number of different movement skills. And to look at that as a social thing and psychological health, physical health, all of that sort of thing and being reliant on a number, sort of disconnects you from the whole overall view of wellness."
Use with caution
Wareham cautioned parents that they may want to think twice before getting their child a fitness device, especially if they're very young.
"It's still an external control but it can be used then as a motivator as opposed to a master," Wareham said.
Wareham said using a fitness tracker can actually pose developmental risks when a child becomes obsessed with a piece of technology.
"When children are very young and they're forming their views on the world, it can put a very warped view of what health is," Wareham told CBC's Central Morning Show.
"They're not thinking about play, they're not thinking about relaxation, they're not thinking about intuitive movement. They're thinking about what that number says on the FitBit, or on any other device actually that quantifies their health."
Wareham added that while a tracking device gives immediate feedback and can sometimes "nudge" some kids who are sedentary and are lacking motivation to become more active, it may set unreasonable goals and lead to other problems.
The whole idea of wellness is lost. Children need to play.- Anne Wareham
She said using a device that focuses solely on your physical self can lead to issues like eating disorders and unhealthy weight loss.
"Some of the FitBits actually take your weight, they do a BMI (Body Mass Index), they do a per cent body fat," said Wareham.
"And in kids 10 and under — that's not even a valid measurement. The kids can actually get an inaccurate response from using that option on the device."
Electronics like the Wii U, said Wareham, will give a classification of your body size that can give a child "a negative view of themselves, their body and their weight," adding that a person who is not satisfied with their body is less likely to exhibit healthy behaviour, and is more likely to gain weight.
"Just like calorie counting can lead to eating disorders, being too focused again on something external to your own judgement, your own health, can predispose you to that kind of thinking ... but there are things that parents can do to help reduce that possibility."
Wareham said activity trackers can help form good habits when used properly, but should not be relied on solely to get your child moving.
If a child has a device, she advises parents to be in control, and set limits to ensure that it's being used in a healthy way that keeps children from becoming reliant on the technology, rather than enjoying the activity.
Wareham said devices come with several control options. If a parent is purchasing one for a child, the BMI option isn't needed because kids are still growing body fat; and the calorie-counting options should be turned off. Parents should also sync the devices to their own mobile phones, and have them password-protected.
"The option for calorie counting, which is a problem in and of itself, because certainly all calories are not created equal," she said.
"I mean you could eat a bag of apples, probably from not much different calories than a cheesecake — but clearly a bag of apples is better for you than a cheesecake, so calorie counting is inaccurate in terms of what it says."
Even though gadgets are all the rage, Wareham said the best way to deal with activity problems would be to visit your family doctor for advice, or find fun ways to get moving as a family. She adds that a tracker should not be used long-term.
It's still an external control but it can be used then as a motivator as opposed to a master.- Anne Wareham
"Especially tech-savvy kids — it can motivate them to start more active, healthy habits which then become more natural or easier to continue ... and at that point you don't need the FitBit, you take the FitBit out," said Wareham.
"You've raised your level of activity, so you've met that goal and as long as the goal is that, but not over a very long period of time where you become dependant upon it."
Wareham suggested parents can find great tips on the Janeway Lifestyle Program's web page: http://www.easternhealth.ca/WebInWeb.aspx?d=4&id=1865&p=1863