Don’t Buy a Fitness Tracker for Your Kid

They do more harm than good, research shows

Credit: Annie Otzen/Getty Images

UUNICEF, the United Nations agency devoted to delivering aid to kids around the world, now makes a fitness tracker for American children. Called the “Kid Power Band,” the smart bracelet petitions kids to get active with an unconventional incentive: If they complete enough steps in one day, UNICEF will deliver a food packet to a hungry child in need. “The more kids move with the Kid Power Band, the more lives they save!” the product page declares.

Apparently it needs to be said: Compelling children to exercise by holding the lives of other kids over their heads is magnificently problematic. Children shouldn’t be held responsible for the lives of other children. But it’s also problematic for another, less obvious reason: 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.

Which is to say, while a Fitbit or other fitness tracker is a tempting stocking stuffer for your kid, save your money or spend it on a better activity-focused gift.

About a quarter of Americans use a fitness wearable, such as a FitBit or an Apple Watch, at least once a month, according to a 2019 report from the market research firm eMarketer. In contrast, adoption by children and teens is low, with about 3.8 million owning a wearable device. Yet interest appears to be growing, in part because of increasing concerns about obesity. Garmin released the Vivofit Jr., its first kid-centric wearable, in 2016, while Fitbit debuted the Ace in 2018. “According to the World Health Organization, childhood obesity rates are on the rise, with two out of three kids inactive every day… [parents] are concerned about their child’s weight, the food they eat, and their activity levels, as well as the rising trend of childhood obesity,” Fitbit wrote in its press release for the Ace, before saying that Fitbit created the Ace “to address this challenge.”

“Fitness trackers are unlikely to lead to long-term changes in health behaviors.”

Fitbit isn’t wrong that low levels of activity is a problem for American kids — yet there’s little proof that fitness trackers will lead to better health habits for children or teens in the long run. 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.

“Fitness trackers are unlikely to lead to long-term changes in health behaviors such as physical activity because they use external mechanisms, such as guilt and pressure, to increase physical activity and change behavior,” says Charlotte Kerner, a lecturer in sport health and exercise sciences at Brunel University London, who conducted the studies. “In order to encourage long-term changes in physical activity, young people need to be motivated by internal reasons (e.g. engaging in physical activity because they love to be active).”

Internal motivation is key to getting kids excited about exercising. As anyone who’s ever been a kid knows, most children already enjoy physical play — riding bikes, climbing on things, or playing tag are inherently fun activities for kids. While there may be some rewards in such activities, such as winning at a game of tag, the fun is found in the movement itself. When external motivation — like a gold star, a punishment, or the promise of a food packet delivery to a child in need — is applied to an activity that the kid already enjoys, kids can become less interested or engaged in the previously adored activity.

The key, then, to getting children engaged in physical play is less about exerting external pressure on them and much more about finding the right activity and providing access. I wasn’t very athletic as a child, but I loved rock climbing. I didn’t enjoy it because I got prizes for tackling the most difficult walls (I didn’t) or because it was a race to the top (it wasn’t). I just liked climbing, so I did it. My parents ensured I had healthy activity levels not because they tracked how much I moved, but because they provided me with the space and time to engage in physical play.

But kids receive less of that today, especially children who attend public schools. A few weeks ago, a parent posted in my neighborhood Facebook group soliciting donations so that the local school could afford to hire a monitor to watch the kids during outdoor recess. The current lack of funding means that most recesses are spent inside rather than on the playground. As funding in schools allocated for recess gets the axe, is it any wonder that kids are getting less physical activity?

Money doesn’t only impact kids’ ability to play at school, but at home, as well — though a fitness tracker’s power to fix that appears to be limited. Research from 2016 found that middle schoolers in cities didn’t remain as interested or engaged with their fitness trackers, nor did they often have the opportunities to increase their activity — by walking to school or playing outside in the evening, for example — that suburban or wealthier kids might.

“They really are tools of diet culture, you know?”

Even still, fitness trackers don’t appear to be the solution to kids’ and teens’ decreasing activity and increasing rates of obesity. Not only is their efficacy questionable, but there’s also the possibility that activity trackers could make kids feel worse about their bodies. The 2017 study found that some students reported obsessively checking their step and calorie counts, and even those who didn’t related their desire to achieve their daily step or calorie goal in an effort to avoid becoming fat. An interview excerpted in the study showcased that:

Student 1: It gives you an incentive to want to maybe do more sport and get your steps up, achieve your goals, etc.

Interviewer: And why would you want to do that?

Student 1: Well, to keep more active, stay active and, yeah.

Interviewer: Anyone want to say why it’s important to be active?

Student 2: So you stay an ideal weight…

Student 1: Keeps you healthy.

Interviewer: Keeps you healthy. What does healthy mean?

Student 1: Not fat.

“I think it’s very inappropriate that fitness trackers are given as gifts to children because of the message that it sends,” says Chevese Turner, the chief strategy and policy officer for the National Eating Disorders Association. “They really are tools of diet culture, you know?” Turner says she’s seen plenty of people in the eating disorder community who have had preoccupations with fitness trackers, noting that this fixation is just as harmful for people with underweight bodies as those with higher-weight bodies — who are often, both within and without the eating disorder community, expected to be constantly dieting and trying to lose weight.

The link between fitness tracker use and obsessive calorie counting or exercise tracking has been shown in multiple studies, with one reporting that weight loss and tracking apps may trigger unhealthy exercise or eating behaviors because they create a dependence on logging and tracking daily eating and activity. Almost all of this research has been done on young adults, however, so it’s difficult to say for sure if children will experience the same effect. Still, factors and behaviors that lead to later eating disorders or disordered eating are seen even in elementary school children, with the onset of anorexia typically occurring around puberty. And because for teens, dieting is the number one predictor of developing an eating disorder, anything that could encourage dieting or tracking calories or exercise is best kept to a minimum. This is especially true for young people at risk, including those with a family history of eating disorders, traumatic pasts, or other mental health struggles.

Elizabeth Evans, a lecturer of psychology at Newcastle University in England whose research focuses on weight management and body image, says that most kids probably won’t be actively harmed if they have a fitness tracker, though she notes there’s little reason for them to have one, either. If a kid really wants one, she says, parents should consider what is motivating the child’s desire. “Weight loss isn’t an appropriate goal for children or adolescents, who are still growing and developing.”

Calorie-counting functions aren’t suitable for children, she says, and parents should talk with kids about the dangers of over-exercising, and how to deal with missing goals. And it’s risky for certain kids, such as girls, or kids with past restrictive eating behaviors or depression, to use the trackers, she says.

In a statement, Fitbit noted that its kid-friendly Fitbit Ace 2 doesn’t show children calorie counts or their weight. That makes the product a bit safer for children, yet even still, the external motivation factor, as well as children’s almost inevitable rapid boredom with the device, make it (and any other fitness tracker) a bad investment.

Parents who want to get their children gifts this holiday season that encourage physical activity have plenty of other more reliable — and fun — options. Skateboards, roller skates, bicycles, scooters, basketball hoops, or slack lines make fantastic presents. For nerdier kids or those who don’t have a lot of safe outdoor space, a Nintendo Switch game that focuses on movement, like Ring Fit Adventure, would be a thrilling item to find under the Christmas tree. And parents who really want to shell out can get their child classes or memberships, such as to a climbing gym, or for horseback riding or swimming lessons.

And for God’s sake, don’t get them a gift that insinuates that a lazy day means some poor kid goes hungry. What the hell?

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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