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Fitness trackers on children

I have started to notice a worrying trend.

Because of the work I do with children and young people, I am in a lot of parenting groups on social media. And, in the build up to Christmas, lots of parents, because they are loving, caring, parents who want the best for their child, are asking for recommendations on things to buy their children.

And several of the requests have been, “Which fitness tracker watch shall I get for my child?” Some of the requests have been for children as young as five.

I want you, the reader, to think about your self esteem and confidence; I want you to think about your relationship with your body. I’ve worked with hundreds of women and, with very few exceptions, their issues with their bodies started in early childhood, following a throwaway comment from an adult, a comment about their body, about them needing to exercise more to get rid of their “chubby thighs”, and that stuck with them for life, leading to a lifetime of body hatred and limited beliefs of their worthiness.

By giving a child a fitness tracker, they are getting the message that their worth is tied up in numbers:

  • How much they weigh;

  • How much they move;

  • How many calories they burn;

  • How much fat they have;

  • What clothes size they are.

You might think that this is extreme thinking. You might think, “Not my child”.

Through my Community Interest Company, I work with children as young as 4 (that’s when children start school in the UK) because it’s from the age of 3 that children start making judgements about bodies, theirs and others, and that the average 5 year old knows how to diet. My aim is to teach children to be happy with who they are, as they are, so they don’t spend a lifetime worrying that they don’t reach the numbers specified by some arbitrary document (I could wax on about government schemes wanting children to be weighed in schools but I won’t; I will, however, say, always look for where the money has come from to fund any study.). I have worked with women in their 70s who are still waiting to be that “ideal” weight before they feel they can start living the life they want, all because of a throwaway comment in their childhood, exacerbated by societal demands on how we should look.

And think about that! How we look. Do you want your child to feel that their worth is tied up in what they look like? In their weight? Or do you want them to grow up knowing that kind is the best thing you can be? That everyone has their own story. That not everyone has the ability to do everything they can. That weight isn’t just dependent on what you eat and the exercise you do; that it could depend on genetics, health, medication, financial status, and many more things. Do you want to teach your child that fat is bad? That it’s unhealthy? How will they judge others that live in different size bodies if the message they receive is “fat is bad”?

Also, think about the potential long term consequences. In the articles I have shared at the end of this blog, some say that some children lose interest after a few weeks and carry on as before; some lose interest in exercise completely; and some go on to develop an obsessive need to count everything they do around fitness and weight.

There’s also the competitive element. They may feel they have to do just as much as their friends, or more than; having a race around the park to see who is fastest is fun; having to obsessively reach a target can become damaging. And anxiety-inducing. After living in a global pandemic for the last 20+ months, where many of us have felt more anxious, and many people’s mental health, including children’s, is suffering, do you want to give them something that will make them more anxious?

Have you asked your child why they want one? Is it because their friends have one? In which case, instead of buying your child a fitness tracker, encourage them to design fun, movement activities they could all do together, without the need of tech monitoring it.

Is it because they are concerned about their size? Our bodies are meant to change shape throughout our lives; young children naturally grow up, then out, over and over, then puberty hits, changing their shape completely; then, through adulthood, our bodies change more, through pregnancy, age, lifestyle, and so on. If this is your child’s reason for wanting a tracker, to monitor their size, teach them instead that they are far more than just a body; that their body is just the vehicle to carry all their love, kindness, hopes, dreams and adventures in; that one size is not better than any other; that every single human has so much to offer, irrespective of what they look like.

Also, many parents moan about how tech dependent their children are, whether it’s phones, laptops, or gaming machines, yet a fitness tracker is another piece of tech to focus on. And, by using a tracker to monitor their levels of activity, their food intake, the child begins to doubt their own intuition on when they want to eat, when they want to move around. I’ve also included an article on other issues with tech in the few below.

Encourage your child to be active doing the fun things they want to do, not those they feel they have to do. If they enjoy an activity purely for the pleasure they get out of it, encourage them, support them, and that love of movement will continue.

Do things together, like walks in forests, looking for fairies or wildlife; go for bike rides and have occasional races between this bin and the next one; have races around the park; and, if you aren’t able to do this things for whatever reasons, you can still be part of it by being the referee, or the organiser, and definitely by being the cheering squad. Encourage children to play games like Tag, or do scavenger hunts; you can do silly team games, seeing who the fastest team to pass a ball between their knees is; or more structured games like football or rounders.

Encouraging a love of movement for the joy of it, rather than for the results of it, will be far more beneficial mentally and physically, for all of you.

If you would like to know more about body positive parenting, I have a chapter about it in my book, La Vie Est Belle. Learning to live hopefully ever after. You can order it here:

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