The pandemic has forced us all to slow down in a myriad of ways. Our schedules are not as packed as they once were, and our legs have not had to carry us from here to there and back again with the frequency of yore. I personally feel myself sinking into hibernation mode; I am most likely to be found huddled under a large crocheted blanket, peering out the nearest window and murmuring, “It looks cold out there.”
But our kids’ activity levels have likely taken an even bigger hit than our own. Kids are naturally active creatures, but much of the activity they enjoy — from gym class and recess to sports and riding bikes with their neighbourhood friends — has being severely reduced. As we look for ways to help our kids keep their activity levels up, you may be considering buying them a wearable fitness tracker. But before you do, there are some important things to consider.
Consider the motivation
First and foremost, physical activity for kids should be fun. So before you even begin to research which fitness tracker is best for your child, consider why it might make sense for them to have one in the first place. Do you want to monitor their sleep or track chores and rewards? Do they want access to games and badges to compete with their friends and make exercise more fun?
These trackers can be a good tool for kids who enjoy them for their colourful designs, badges, avatars, games, and other features. (My 10-year-old likes the timer feature on his tracker more than anything else right now; when we say, “ten more minutes until we have to leave,” he sets his timer.) And they can be a motivator for some kids to get moving more frequently, particularly if others in the family have trackers and you can create some family activity goals together.
But they should be seen entirely as a fun and helpful tool that the child wants and is excited for, not something you are pushing on them because you want them to get off the couch more often.
What to be careful of
The biggest criticism around kids using fitness trackers is the possibility that the devices may be a contributing factor in developing (or exacerbate already-existing) body-image issues. If you think a tracker may cause them to obsess over the data it provides, it’s not a good idea.
Also, if you’re considering buying a fitness tracker for your kid, chances are you already have one yourself. And as with most things in parenting, the way you model your fitness-tracker use will impact your kid’s behaviour more than how you say they should use it. So you might tell your child it’s just for fun to earn badges, set goals, or compete with friends. But if in the next breath, you’re chastising yourself for not hitting your own step goal, you’re sending the wrong message, and it’s one they’re likely to hear.
The bottom line
For a naturally competitive kid or goal-oriented tween, a tracker might inspire them to walk to school or choose the stairs over the elevator to up those step counts. For busy, stressed out teenagers, a smartwatch reminder to take a quick walk outside can help them schedule in the breaks they need. That’s great — as long as it’s creating a positive association with physical activity, rather than causing them to feel pressured or disappointed in themselves for not meeting a goal. It’s also important to emphasise that lots of healthy activities children do — such as climbing trees — won’t always yield high step counts, but are still an important part of being a physically active kid who enjoys being outdoors.
Because fitness trackers are relatively new, the research on how they impact children is limited. But we do know a child does not need a fitness tracker to move about the world in an active, healthy way.
So if they don’t want one, don’t get one. If you think they may become excessively focused on the stats, take a pass. (If you think you might excessively focus on their stats, take a pass.) And if they have one, and it begins to cause more angst than inspiration, it’s time to take it off.