As you probably know, activity tracking devices, like the Fitbit, are extremely popular fitness tools. For adults, such devices can be very useful in maintaining motivation for physical activity and in helping individuals with sedentary lifestyles to increase activity levels and improve their overall health.
When it comes to eating disorders, however, these devices can have a very dark side. Many individuals with eating disorders also have severe compulsions related to physical activity, including excessive exercise, compulsions to move constantly throughout the day and unnecessary fidgeting. The clinical picture of an eating disorder often includes an irrepressible drive to burn calories round the clock. This means nonstop movement whenever possible.
Physical activity monitors often feed into this compulsive drive to burn energy. I have seen many ED sufferers become virtual slaves to their devices–constantly monitoring their steps and feeling driven to outdo the previous day’s energy output in an addictive and ritualized way. In this way, these tracking devices feed into the obsessions and compulsions that are trademarks of eating disorders and compulsive exercise.
Knowing this dark side of activity monitors, when my then 9 year old son first requested a Fitbit, all my alarm bells went off. It seems that Fitbits had become a status symbol at school and “everyone” had them. This is where I decided to draw a line in the sand as a parent.
I ensure that my children get healthy levels of physical activity each and every day. Because of this, there is not one reason I could think of for a nine year old to need to monitor his own activity with a device. Admittedly, it may be be fun for kids to see the numbers go up with increased activity and could, for a time, encourage more healthy physical activity. That said, knowing the down sides of these devices, I said NO and continue to disallow these devices.
I want my kids to enjoy physical activity for the sake of it, not meet some sort of numbers-based goal. There will be plenty of time to do this as an adult. For now, my kids deserve to be free.