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FitBits actually put young people off getting active

Tyrone Stewart

FitBit ChargeWearable activity trackers may actually demotivate young people from exercising – the opposite of what fitness hardware makers would like you to believe.

Researchers from Brunel University and the University of Birmingham carried out an eight-week study with 84 teens – 44 girls and 40 boys – aged 13-14. For the study, the teens were given a FitBit Charge to see how their physical activity levels and motivation to exercise differed when they had they were using the devices.

Through surveys and focus groups conducted before and after the eight-week period, it was found that participants felt less confident about their competence at exercising, less connected to their peers, and felt less like they had a choice about how to engage in physical activity. This is despite them being more active in the first few weeks, before becoming ‘bored’ of the FitBit in the later weeks.

The FitBit app, being designed to encourage competition and interaction among peers, actually resulted in participants feeling peer-pressure to achieve goals and made them feel guilt of other negative feelings when they failed to match up to their peers. Rather than being motivated by competition, the pressure of it prevented them from partaking in enjoyable exercise.

“Our data suggests that peer-comparison was a key factor in undermining levels of competence and autonomous motivation. There wasn’t a desire for our participants to be more active for themselves and their own goals, or for fun, it was simply because they wanted to beat their mates. Self-determined forms of motivation are much better in encouraging people to engage in a particular behaviour,” said researcher Dr Charlotte Kerner.

“Additionally, the pre-defined daily target encouraged by FitBit is 10,000 steps. It’s not a personalised target and our results show that many participants found it undermining. They said it was unfair, especially if you lacked the ability to achieve those targets.

“They strived to achieve it but would often fall short. That made them feel really bad about themselves, and put them off exercise. The app had a negative influence on their perceptions of what being competent at activity means because these pre-defined targets were not relevant to individual needs.”

Despite the negative findings of the study, the researchers suggest that digital technology could still play a part in encouraging young people to take part in exercise. However, they note that this technology would have to be used with the support and education of people like PE teachers.