Impacts of biowearables on children

Dr. Kitson encourages parents to talk to their children about biowearable tech

Illustration of a young child looking at their own biowearable, the biowearable is emitting a glow on the child’s face.
Biowearables’ feedback on the physical body can have psychological effects on children. ILLUSTRATION: Nazmus Sakib / The Peak

By: Kelly Chia, Staff Writer

Researchers at SFU’s Tangible Embodied Child-Computer Interaction Lab (TECI) are concerned with the ethical effects of biowearables on children. Biowearables refer to apps or wearable devices that track data from the body, such as Fitbit watches. TECI researchers are strongly urging parents to have conversations with their children about using this technology.

The Peak spoke to postdoctoral researcher Dr. Alexandra Kitson, who works in the TECI lab alongside Dr. Alissa Antle

While there is significant research on data privacy with technology like biowearables, Kitson noted a gap in the research surrounding how they made people feel. Biowearables provide feedback on their users’ physiological states, a process TECI worries would affect growing children psychologically.

Kitson is concerned that children will treat the biowearables’ feedback as an authority on their health. She explains biowearables were not initially made for children. “It was really meant for elite athletes trying to push their performance, so it is very performance centric.

“So for kids, that could be quite dangerous because they’re getting wrapped up in all these numbers which don’t even make sense for them because all the numbers are based on adults. I think designers should be thinking about children and not using adults’ metrics for data. And also being transparent in the kind of things that these wearables can or can’t do.”

Recognizing that these devices will only become more popular, TECI is working on ways to give children tools to grow their agency when using these devices. Kitson held a maker’s workshop online where children would develop a breathing sensor with parts TECI shipped to them. As they created these devices, Kitson asked the children to reflect on what their sensors were doing. In these workshops, Kitson observed how technology can affect children’s judgement, such as the presence of red lights meaning the light is “bad,” and green lights meaning it is “good.”

“If kids are actually engaged with the making of these things and think more critically about the kinds of decisions that go into making them in the first place, [they realize] there’s not some all-knowing designer,” Kitson said. “Even when we have the best intentions, there are some unintended consequences with these technologies.”

TECI published conversation starters on their website for parents to use to talk to their children about biowearable devices. The questions centre around how these devices could be addictive and how they make them feel. Kitson also pointed to the biotech design cards on the website to help parents learn more about how these technologies work and how they can continue the discussion with their children.

Kitson directs people to think more critically about how biowearables may affect children’s growing identities and to have conversations with them about how these devices can help or impact the ways they think about themselves. “We need to give children more tools to help navigate that space and to recognize when our inherent assumptions are embedded in the designs of these biowearables,” Kitson said.

To find out more about future maker workshops and read about TECI’s research on biowearables, visit their website.