Understanding the impacts of biowearable technology

Information on tracking devices do not necessarily reflect a child’s ability to do something. | Photo courtesy of SFU

Biowearable technology, such as smart watches and other interactive devices worn on-body, can offer significant benefits to children–monitoring heart rate, body temperature, and more. But research from Simon Fraser University shows that you might not want to gift these electronics to your young one.

Both psychologically and physiologically, e-wearables may offer more harm than good to youth. SFU professor Alissa Antle was involved in co-authoring the research position paper, “1, 2, 3, 4 tell me how to grow more: A position paper on children, design ethics and biowearables,” where she investigated potential social impacts of biowearable technologies on children.

Speaking on the impacts of biowearable devices, Professor Antle says, “I don’t think there is just one impact–but tracking, monitoring and measuring children’s activity level–for example–and setting goals and providing them with feedback on these goals–basically quantifying them is problematic for many reasons.”

Impacts of Biowearables on the Next Generation

Biowearables are constantly assessing and providing feedback on a user’s mental or physical states, which can impact a developing child’s identity, self-esteem, and self-efficacy. Feedback from e-wearable devices are largely based on physiological norms for each age group; as a result, the information tracking devices are not reflected on a child’s ability to do something, rather, they compare that child with their peers.

“I saw some negative impacts (when working with brain computer interfaces and children)–for example, when the technology didn’t work well but kids thought they were failing at the task–and I started to research the ethical issues associated with this class of technology and children.” says Professor Antle.

Today, the smartwatch market is booming, with sales oftentimes exceeding other electronic devices. In this industry, children’s biodata is fed into apps and can have a significant impact on their physical, psychological and mental health. Everything from food intake to their sleeping habits can be tracked and associated feedback can impact the development of their identity.

According to an SFU news article, Alexandra Kitson, a postdoctoral researcher working alongside Professor Antle, says, “If a child’s tracker tells them they are not exercising enough or they are eating too much, this might negatively impact their development of self-esteem and sense of competency, since most children do not realize the changing needs of their bodies as they develop.”

Throughout her research, Professor Antle questioned if it is healthy for youth to be continuously reminded of their exercise or heart rate, and how easy it could be for a child to become addicted to their tracking devices. She focused on six areas of potential impact including: formation of identity, who a child thinks they are; autonomy, a child’s ability to make independent decisions; and agency, a child’s ability to take action and have an impact in the world.

With the constant advancement of technology, children are being surrounded by screens more than ever. “It’s not about [..] too much screen time (being) bad, it’s about what the quality of screen time (is) and how it contributes or not to healthy child development,” says Professor Antle. The push to more interactive technological devices could for example, rob youth of outdoor time, social interaction, and unstructured play.

Professor Antle writes that identity formation strongly impacts self-esteem, and competence. When biowearables give reminders of high stress levels all the time, for example, during the pandemic, children could develop an identity as a “stressed out” person, instead of seeing how well they are coping with a stressful situation. Furthermore, e-wearables can influence a child’s thought process about what to eat in a day, and, overall, how to make healthy choices–this affects a child’s developing sense of autonomy.

Conversation Starters

Professor Antle has created workshops for young teens to explore these issues. In addition, she encourages families to have conversations about the potential consequences smart watches and other on-body electronics can have on a developing child’s “sense of self.” She has created conversation starters for families.

Alissa N. Antle
is a professor at Simon Fraser University in Surrey, British Columbia. Upon completing her B.A in Liberal Arts and a B.A.Sc in Systems Design Engineering at the University of Waterloo in 1990, and subsequently her Ph.D. in Geography: Human-Computer Interaction & Interactive Cartography at UBC, Professor Antle worked in the interactive technology and new media industry for 8 years before coming to SFU as research faculty. At SFU, her research interests span from the ways we think and learn, particularly for children, to how these learning innovations support and affect youth’s emotional and cognitive development.
This is an updated version