Using fitness trackers can de-motive teens, negatively impacting lifestyle

8 August 2017
The become a de-motivating factor, after the initial novelty of wearing a tracker wears off.
Considerable numbers of young people are not meeting physical activity guidelines. Wearable fitness devices can provide opportunities for physical activity promotion. Researchers at Brunel University London the University of Birmingham therefore conducted an eight-week study to investigate whether fitness wearables could encourage young teenagers to take more exercise.

The aim of the UK based study was to explore whether wearable healthy lifestyle technologies impacted on adolescents’ (13- to 14-year-olds) motivation for physical activity. Participants were 84 adolescents (44 girls, 40 boys) from 6 physical education classes. Pupils were issued with a Fitbit to wear for 8 weeks and completed pre-/posttest questionnaires that assessed motivational regulation and psychological need satisfaction. The teenagers also engaged in focus group interviews after wearing the Fitbit for 8 weeks.

Motivation decreased against expectation

The researchers had expected the wearable to have a positive impact on encouraging teens to exercise across a range of different forms of motivation, as well as hypothesizing it would help avoid kids feeling demotivated about physical activity. However, quantitative findings identified significant reductions in need satisfaction and autonomous motivation and significant increases in amotivation after 8 weeks. Qualitative evidence suggested only a short-term increases in motivation through feelings of competition, guilt, and internal pressure.

Fitbit’s non-personalized 10,000 steps per day target for one, was cited as an unfair and pressurizing goal by study participants — generating feelings of guilt or lack of ability among users, which in turn acted as a disincentive for taking more exercise. Study participants also reported feeling like they had less choice over how to engage in physical activity — which also ended up being a demotivating factor. Pressure from competition with peers, encouraged via in-app comparison in a social leaderboard scenario, also negatively impacted participants’ motivation to exercise.

The researchers refer to a framework of motivational behavior in youth physical activity – the self-determination theory - which proposes that individuals are optimally motivated if they make changes fully of their own volition, therefore internalizing the rational for doing so and satisfying core psychological needs, versus responding to feelings of “controlled motivation” — be it to avoid feelings of guilt or obtain social approval, or else gain a reward or avoid a punishment.

Teens get bored after 4 weeks

The findings therefore suggest that healthy lifestyle technology may actually have negative motivational consequences.  “It was consistently reported that after about 4 weeks pupils became bored with the Fitbit,” the researchers wrote. “This evidence suggests that though the Fitbit serves to promote physical activity, for the pupils in this study, the Fitbit may have only produced modest and short-term effects.”

The researchers believe that certified Health Education Specialists should support young people to personalize health targets in order to critically engage with normalized health targets. They also emphasize the importance of autonomy in motivating young people to be more physically active. “Young people need to see themselves as capable and confident, and the ‘origin’ of their behaviours rather than a ‘pawn’,” they state.

FitBit earlier this month released results for the second quarter of 2017, selling 3.4 million devices. In the same period last year 5.7 million devices were sold. The company sa wits revenue decline from 586.5 tot 353.3 million dollars.