When 6-year-old Addison jumps out of bed, the Long Island fitness buff clips her 3-D TriFit Pedometer to her pink onesie. Then she runs around the house to rack up the steps.
“There are days where she’s worn it all day and had 12,000 steps,” says her mom, Deena, an elementary school teacher who withheld their last name for privacy reasons. Deena, a runner who wears a Garmin fitness watch, says Addison “just wants to beat me. I can see how that can get out of hand. But if my child has to be obsessed with something, I’d rather her be obsessed with how many steps she’s taking than a video game.”
Just like their parents, kids have become consumed by the fitness-tracker craze. That’s good news given children glued to their screens can see their weight rise and their grades drop. But is trading one obsession for another actually good for their health?
While there are no stats on kids who wear fitness trackers — a 2015 report from research firm Forrester cites only that 20 percent of Americans use some sort of fitness wearable — anecdotal evidence shows kids as young as 4 years old are following their parents by counting steps and comparing numbers.
For many, it’s a lesser-of-two-evils trade-off.
“Kids become addicted to monitoring their step counts, [but] if that translates into moving more to stay ahead of their friends, that’s a win,” says Upper East Side-based sports medicine doctor Jordan Metzl.
But it’s unclear if the trackers have any lasting benefits — and some worry that they may actually contribute to unhealthy behaviors down the line.
Alexis Conason, a clinical psychologist in Midtown, notes that “kids can become compulsive about a device like the Fitbit.” She’s especially concerned with trackers that count calories and the effects that might have on children’s eating habits.
“We want to help children learn to care for their bodies through pleasurable physical activity and eating guided by internal signs of hunger and fullness,” says Conason. “I think that devices like the Fitbit take us away from those goals and encourages distorted thinking about health and body image.
Mom Ella Leitner is equally concerned. When her 9-year-old daughter came back from summer camp excited about her friends’ trackers, Leitner thought it would be a good way to “get her off devices, keep her outdoors and active.” But her daughter, she says, quickly became compulsive.
“It’s another piece of technology,” says Leitner, a 41-year-old Lower East Side resident who put the kibosh on the new addiction. “[It’s not good for a] healthy almost-10-year-old who is small for her age and thin to begin with.”
A spokesperson for Fitbit stresses that its devices are “not directed at persons under the age of 13.” But the Fitbit Zip, as well as several other brands’ wearables, offer colorful, durable choices frequently touted as kid-friendly online. LeapFrog has one specifically for kids: The LeapBand, designed to get them moving with different challenges and offering helpful information about nutrition.
Whether or not the obsession is healthy, it’s clear it often starts at home.
“Ever since my mom got one, I wanted one. It looked like she was having fun competing with other people,” says 8-year-old Chelsea resident Leah Hodorov. Her mother, Marina Levin, 40, a health care analytics worker, gifted Leah and her two siblings — Rachel, 11, and Marc, 13 — each with a Fitbit Charge 2.
“Anything that can be measured, they want to do better than the other one — and now it’s how many steps they get,” says Levin.
“If I’m at 9,800 steps, I’ll jump around the apartment to get to 10,000,” says eighth-grader Marc, referencing Fitbit’s 10,000-step baseline goal for its adult users (roughly five miles).
When he accidentally leaves it at home, Marc, who can crack 20,000 steps a day, says, “It really sucks because you’re 10,000 steps behind everybody.”
Some teachers are wary about fitness trackers in school — including Deena, who says some of her fifth-grade students are fixated with quantifying their workouts. “They are so competitive with each other,” she laments.
Shoshana, a kindergarten teacher on the Upper East Side who declined to give her last name for privacy reasons, says she’s unhappy with the devices’ growing popularity.
“One kid said he’s getting one, and he already has a hard time paying attention. I can picture it being a huge distraction,” Shoshana says. “Plus, [it’s not the] right kind of competition. They just want to see the number change — not to be healthier.”
Jacob Sheldon, 11, from Montville, NJ, was an early adopter of the trend, having been the first kid in his third-grade class to get a Fitbit. While he loves challenging his friends to races at school, his mom, Lina, 42, a litigation paralegal, says it motivated her son to stay active after the family moved from the city to “the sedentary suburbs.”
But despite his dedication — he and Mom compete on the treadmill every night — the tracker isn’t his top tech obsession.
“My phone is the best,” says Jacob. “Fitbit [comes in] second.”