Give this season technical competence – not addiction – together with this device

What do wireless speakers, streaming music subscriptions, smartphones, and bespoke game controllers have in common? They are some of the best tech gifts for kids and teens this year.

The list is rounded off by a range of smartwatches and fitness trackers, also known as e-wearables. And you are not alone in thinking of buying your child or teen one this holiday season – e-wearables sales are projected to hit $ 73 billion by 2022.

According to a British survey by Attest, 33 percent of Generation Z (up to 24 years of age) own or use an e-wearable. Jim Taylor, author of Raising Generation Tech, says, “You’re the next big thing. It’s not about whether it becomes part of the culture, but when and how. “

Do parents need to worry?

E-wearables come in a range of prices and come with a variety of features that are touted to make us healthier. Most can monitor heart rate, count steps and calories burned, and track sleep. And when connected to a smartphone, many can mirror the device.

Child-friendly versions often use GPS for location and have an SOS button or one-way voice from parents to children. While e-wearables promise well-being, they can deliver something completely different. Do parents need to worry?

As someone who has been researching e-wearables for over 10 years to teach kids about mental health, I’ve seen some alarming unintended consequences of using them.

In my research lab, we used a simple brain-sensing headset connected to a digital game to teach children to stay calm and focus their attention – two important parts of self-regulation children need to be successful. While our program was successful, I noticed some worrying side effects.

Sometimes the systems did not work properly or the feedback was incorrect and children interpreted these technical errors as their own. We started to ask; Is it healthy for teenagers to be continuously followed up and get feedback on their diet and exercise? How easy is it for a child to become addicted to their fitness tracker? Could you stop listening to your own insights and treat the e-wearable as an authority?

E-wearables typically interpret well-being as better performance or more productivity.

Developed around normative assumptions

Most e-wearables, even for children, have been developed according to normative assumptions and values ​​that often reflect affluent, adult, male, and performance-oriented end-users.

The designs and algorithms usually interpret well-being as better performance or more productivity. For children, however, this “more is better” approach can have a number of negative effects on their wellbeing.

This, combined with the often punitive tone of the feedback, is cause for concern. Young people are often more vulnerable to social and environmental influences such as peer pressure. Positive and negative feedback happens at a critical time for the formation of your identity, your self-esteem and your self-efficacy.

So while young people’s data is fed through their bodies into devices that matter, I focused my research on understanding how e-wearables could affect their evolving self-esteem. I looked at how negative news can affect identity formation over time.

Negative news affects identity

When an Apple watch tells a child that this time of day is usually closer to their training goal, it’s easy to see how that child is starting to feel lazy about themselves. Or during the COVID-19 pandemic, a student’s stress tracker may tell them that they have persistently high levels of stress. This can lead them to develop an identity as someone who is stressed out rather than resilient and coping with a stressful time.

Based on my research, the interdisciplinary researcher Alexandra Kitson and I have published “1,2,3,4 Tell Me How I Can Grow More: A Position Paper on Children, Design Ethics and Biowearables”. In it, we identified several problem areas related to how the latest e-wearable technologies could negatively affect a child’s development of self-esteem.

The first is identity formation, or a child’s identity formation as they grow up. The second is autonomy, or the development of a child’s ability to make their own decisions and not be influenced by others. We also looked at agency (a child’s sense of their ability to take action and influence the world) and authority (who and what a child sees as a source of information about themselves).

The danger is that, as the historian and philosopher Yuval Harari pointed out, we might believe that our devices know us better than we do ourselves. For a child, it’s not always about productive results, but often about processes and experiences. Being dictated what to do does not allow a child to explore, experience, and learn from their own choices.

A young boy with a red backpack looks at his smartwatch
Over time, when an Apple Watch tells a child that their training rings are usually more advanced, they can begin to feel lazy about themselves.

Later we dealt with authenticity, the ability to be present in a moment and to be personality. We then developed a series of cards for user experience designers that explain these issues and raise questions that need to be considered. Our research then looked at how children can be helped develop an understanding of the possible unintended consequences of e-wearables.

Since then we have been offering workshops for young teenagers to explore these topics while they learn and develop their own e-wearables at the same time. During the workshop we heard about their concerns and, unsurprisingly, the subject of addiction kept coming up.

We cannot rely on educational institutions to educate young people about these potential problems. However, they are a crucial part of the technical competence that every child should learn about.

To encourage families to have conversations about the unintended consequences and possible negative effects of e-wearables on children’s self-esteem, we developed conversation starters for families.

This Christmas season, I encourage caregivers who want to leave a smartwatch under the tree to also take time to talk to families about the possible implications.

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