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by Heather Sanders 

How many steps did you take today? Did you get enough hours of sleep? Wearable technology – or biowearables – like smart watches and fitness trackers can help us stay on top of health and exercise goals. However, the rapid adoption of biowearables raises ethical issues as to whether these devices are acceptable for use by young people. Is it appropriate for youth to be tracked, monitored and given feedback on areas such as diet and exercise? Interactive arts and technology professor Alissa Antle cautions that young people be given support to build their technological literacy, while app designers should consider the well-being of users when developing technologies.

Antle designs and studies interactive technologies and is well-versed on how users interact with and experience them. She is director of the Tangible Embodied Child-Computer Interaction (TECI) Research Lab, where her team designs, builds and evaluates technological innovations that improve, augment and support children’s learning and development. Along with postdoctoral researcher Alexandra Kitson, she recently published 1,2,3,4 tell me how to grow more: A position paper on children, design ethics and biowearables which examines the ways popular wearable devices may impact children’s well-being.

The latest exercise tracking devices and apps that measure biofeedback are part of a cultural phenomenon referred to as “quantification of self” – a movement to incorporate technology and data into aspects of a person’s daily life.

This technology promises well-being and fulfillment but Antle argues that in the quantification of self, most apps equate well-being with improving productivity and performance, reinforcing the idea that “more is better.” “What you might need to do to improve your athletic performance is not the same thing which will improve your well-being, such as taking a walk in nature,” says Antle. “We really need to challenge what is meant by well-being and whether these devices actually support it.”

The choice of whether to heed the advice of your Fitbit or smartwatch may be difficult enough for adults, let alone children with less life experiences. Most minors have less developed cognitive, emotional, physical and social skills. They are often more susceptible to social and environmental influences, like peer pressure, and thus they can be more easily influenced by positive or negative feedback from devices than many adults. Products designed for adults and used by children and youth is not uncommon, but their increasing use by minors raises critical ethical concerns.

Technologies designed for adults and used by children and youth is not uncommon, but their increasing use by minors raises critical ethical concerns. [Photo: Giu Vicente, Unsplash]

Bringing together her experience in child psychology, design ethics, and the design of new technologies Antle identifies several areas of ethical concern associated with biowearables, children, and long-term use. She notes the potential negative impacts biowearables could have on children’s identity formation, the development of autonomy and agency, and what sources of information children turn to for authority about themselves.

For example, an Apple watch might tell a child that they haven’t exercised enough that day, particularly in the winter months. The child starts to wonder if she is lazy, and might start to consider herself a lazy person. Another app might tell a university student that their stress level is above average – especially during mid-terms. The student might develop the idea that they are an anxious person, rather than someone who is coping normally and demonstrating resilience.

“App designers should consider the tone and nature of the information provided, is it informative or is it punitive?” says Antle. “Over time, data about the self may influence how young people identify and develop. When we think of people who are in the midst of forming an identity, we need to think carefully about how we communicate with them about their brains and their bodies.”

Another issue is games and apps that provide in-the-moment feedback may affect how a person makes decisions and develops their own autonomy. “Being told what to do does not provide a child with the opportunity to explore, experience and learn from their own decisions. A child’s goals are not always about productive outcomes – they might be about processes and experiences,” says Antle.

She adds that many consumer devices are not precise in their data and resulting feedback, which can frustrate young users who are developing their sense of agency and autonomy. App developers need to consider enabling user overrides and allowing for user inputs that encourage decision making and account for inaccurate data.

There is also the unintended consequence that users of technology may begin to trust that the app knows them better than they know themselves. Trusting the authority of a device that says you are stressed, angry, or need to be more active without having the context of what you are doing could be giving you false information about yourself. “It is important for young people to recognize that they are one of the most important authorities on themselves, not a device,” says Antle.

Antle is concerned about the addictive effect device use can have on young users. Many apps are designed to keep our attention and provide an instant dopamine response with their notifications. They affect the ways that people are present in the world. Well-being means developing healthy behaviors over time and most apps are not designed to become obsolete as well-being improves.

Antle acknowledges that new technologies such as biowearables can provide significant benefits to children, and encourages designers to include the participation of children in both the research and co-design of technologies that can benefit them.

“App developers also need to think about how they monetize well-being; finding ways to add value by improving well-being rather than being disruptive and relying on ongoing usage. It’s so important to support the well-being of young people as they grow up – they have so much going on already without their smart watch telling them they are not good enough.”


Alissa Antle presented the paper at the 2021 Radical Research Summit. To view the presentation, copy and paste the link below into your browser:

This research was supported by an NSERC Discovery grant and SFU Innovates grant.  


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