Fitbits in schools a step in wrong direction, study says

Far from giving teenagers some motivation to get moving, the use of Fitbits and other activity trackers in schools has been linked to poor self-esteem and negative feelings of alienation and inadequacy.

A study into the use of the wearable technology devices in children also shows students' physical activity declined over time with the introduction of activity trackers, leading to speculation that the devices demotivate children.

Schools around the world - including primary schools in Melbourne - have adopted the fitness gadgets as a way to encourage students to get moving and compete against classmates by counting their steps.

The health monitor tracks steps, distance travelled, kilojoules burned and active minutes.

A study of 41 high school physical education classes by the University of Birmingham in the UK found that using the devices resulted in feelings of inadequacy and lower self-esteem among pupils.

But personal trainer Lauren Gilchrist, who runs children's programs at her gym 3E Fitness, said activity trackers were great motivators when more children were leading sedentary lifestyles.

"I used to be a physical exercise teacher before having kids myself and I saw PE getting pushed out of the curriculum," Ms Gilchrist said.

"You can definitely use [trackers] in a positive way just to encourage that activity. It creates an awareness that they might not otherwise have."

Both of her daughters, aged 10 and 6, wear Garmin Vivofit activity trackers, and Ms Gilchrist said a quarter of the children at her gym had similar devices to track their steps.

"Even my children who are quite active could spend every waking hour on their iPads if you let them. It's just a matter of creating that balance."

She said her daughters compared their steps at the end of the day and the children in her sessions also went through their step count together.

But Chris Hickey, Professor of Health and Physical Education at Deakin University, said using activity trackers in schools was "problematic" for long-term wellbeing.

"Worse still, the issuing of Fitbits was coupled to unattainable targets for some students," he said.

"This was counter-productive and instead of motivating them to be more active, simply provided them with 'more' negative feedback about themselves and caused them to reject the program."

In July, a girls' grammar school in England's Gloucestershire banned wearable activity monitors after it found students were skipping lunches and obsessively counting calories.

Ms Gilchrist said it was a risk teenage girls might become fixated on things such as unrealistic step goals and said this was something parents should monitor closely.

"As long as it's healthy, not looking at kilos and calories, and just checking steps, getting active is a positive."

Only 6 per cent of 15 to 17-year-old girls meet the minimum daily physical activity guidelines stipulated by the National Health Medical Research Council, and boys were at a low of 14 per cent.

Among 12- to 14-year-olds, only 9 per cent of girls reached the benchmark - less than half the 20 per cent of boys reaching the standard.

Mr Hickey called for fitness programs which took into account students' individual needs.

"To me the research speaks not so much about the value of Fitbits, but about the ways such technologies are to be integrated into health and physical education programs in more engaged and educative ways."

Flinders University Health and Early Childhood Education lecturer Jennifer Fane said the "competitive and comparative nature of fitness data" would discourage students from exercising.

"When this is considered ... it is not surprising that Fitbits in [or] of themselves are not 'silver bullets' and need to be carefully considered and appropriated."

The story Fitbits in schools a step in wrong direction, study says first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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