19/04/2018 12:04 BST | Updated 19/04/2018 12:04 BST

How To Ensure You Kids' Fitness Tracker Isn't Damaging Their Mental Health

'It is not long before the competitive instinct could become quite unhealthy.'

Fitness trackers aren’t only a gadget for adults to keep an eye on how much they’re moving. As well as Fitbit launching their own kids’ version, there are also cheaper alternatives giving children the opportunity to track their steps, exercise and sleep patterns.

But a headteacher has argued the competitive nature of these trackers could be contributing towards children’s anxiety and other mental health issues.

“Used well, the data they provide can be invaluable in developing a healthy lifestyle and in promoting fitness,” William Dunlop, head of Clayesmore Preparatory School in Dorset, wrote in Attain, a magazine of the independent schools’ sector. “The trouble is that the data is very rarely used well, in fact the way it is presented can be positively harmful.” 

Dunlop argued that children are susceptible to “obsessive behaviour in pursuit of arbitrary goals” and added: “It is not long before the competitive instinct could become quite unhealthy.”

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Personal trainer Tome Levi agreed, telling HuffPost UK: “I feel that the risk of developing obsessive behaviour around fitness and mobility outweighs any benefit that a tracker can deliver.” She said parents should be encouraging children to explore different outdoor activities and find something they enjoy, adding: “Having fun whilst being active is important in ensuring that they don’t develop a resentment around exercise.” 

However there is some debate on this topic. Another personal trainer Lucy Locket said they are positive for kids, explaining: “They have a social element and promote healthy competition. I think they can be incredibly beneficial, especially the higher end ones, as they can track your sleep and sleep patterns.”

When HuffPost UK previously spoke to parents about the launch of the Fitbit for kids, many welcomed the product. So if kids do already own a fitness tracker, how can parents ensure these trackers are not impacting kids’ mental health?

Make it fun

Rather than getting your child to focus on the device as a step counter, Levi suggests using it as a stopwatch, timer or device for activities like racing, tag and hide and seek (depending on the functions available on the watch). This encourages your kids to still have fun playing, while also being able to see how that was recorded on their watch afterwards. 

Leanne Holder, a PT and MSc qualified strength and conditioning coach, says parents need to make it clear the intentions of the tracker straight away. “Perhaps suggest to the child that it is more of a game of seeing how much activity they do in a day, rather than suggesting that they actually do more,” she says. 

Use other features wisely

Some fitness trackers for kids do not include calorie counting, but PT Tome Levi argues that if this is a function on your child’s tracker, ensure it’s disabled. “Children are so impressionable and such a heightened awareness of this could do long term damage to their mental health,” she says.

But there are some features which could teach your child about having a healthier lifestyle - such as tracking water consumption. Holder says: “A positive change is to drink more water in the day, rather than make them feel worried about not doing enough activity.”

Monitor usage

Once your child has been set up with their tracker, make sure they aren’t re-setting goals too high or trying to do too many steps or exercise in the space of a week. “It’s a parent’s responsibility to keep track of their usage, and limit their use,” says Locket. “It’s about making it fun and exciting, rather than a punishment.” 

Holder advises parents to get their kids to take the tracker off sync mode, so children only check it manually when they connect it to bluetooth or up to their laptop. “This means that they essentially can not worry so much that they are not reaching  goals too much in the day time,” she says. 

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