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The Complex World of Teens’ Self-Tracking

The Complex World of Teens’ Self-Tracking

Published on
1 Sep 2021
Written by
Jaimie Freeman and Gina Neff
When it comes to self-tracking, teens use tools that were neither designed with them in mind nor fit their needs. As teens and their bodies develop, self-tracking presents both challenges and opportunities.

Self-tracking apps and devices—from Apple Watches to Fitbits to Strava—give people intimate insights into their health, allowing them to connect, compete, and share with others. Teens use these tracking tools, but researchers don’t know what tracking means for them. Schools turned to self-tracking to keep young people active throughout periods of COVID-19 restrictions. Often replacing formal Physical Education classes, self-tracking activities for students include competing in step challenges to virtually racing each other across the country.

But what does it mean to track a teenage body, which is changing rapidly, with tools designed for adults? The answer is of course, it’s complicated. When young people self-track, they often do so within institutions like schools, where their behaviours and routines are heavily controlled by others. Students often cannot simply stand up and go for a walk when their wearable reminds them to in the middle of a class. When teens choose to self-track, their devices ask them to track a body that neither child nor adult, and one that is undergoing significant physical development. So, it can be challenging for teens to make sense of their data, especially when the baselines and standards for measures of steps, heart rate, and calories are often based on adult bodies.

When it comes to self-tracking, teens use tools that were neither designed with them in mind nor fit their needs. At this stage of life, teens are navigating concerns about body image, psychological wellbeing, identity, and social pressures. As teens and their bodies develop, self-tracking presents both challenges and opportunities, and researchers need to work to understand these in practice.

In our latest paper, ‘The challenge of repurposed technologies for youth: Understanding the unique affordances of digital self-tracking for adolescents’ Jaimie Lee Freeman and Gina Neff, published by New Media and Society, we argue that the self-tracking apps and devices used by adults offer young people quite different uses. This does not mean that teens are less sophisticated in their use of these tools. Quite the contrary, teens are often highly skilled in navigating new technologies and their social worlds.

In our survey of UK teenagers, aged 16-18yrs, we found that over half (54%) of these teens have used a self-tracking device or app. We asked teens to imagine what it might look like to use self-tracking devices and apps in school-based Physical Education. We wanted to understand their expectations, their fears, and their understanding of what these tools could (and could not) do for them. Here’s what we found.

One Size Fits… Some

Young people don’t all use or imagine self-tracking tools in the same way. While teens see how self-tracking can help them to improve their health, learn about their bodies, and increase their engagement with Physical Education, they discuss the potential fragility of both their own and their peers’ psychological wellbeing.  They enjoy the opportunity to analyse personalised data and value these tools as playful and fun. However, they worry that people might become obsessed with tracking and that this can lead to harms including disordered eating behaviours, compulsive calorie counting, and over-exercising.

Who is in Control?

Almost half (46%) of the teens we surveyed do not think that self-tracking tools should be used in schools. They fear losing control of their self-tracked data and want to maintain a sense of agency over their choice of whether to self-track or not. Teens are concerned that Physical Education is normally a place where they can escape from the routines of more formal classes and they worry that self-tracking could introduce unwanted pressure to perform if their physical activity is quantified.

Social Comparisons: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Teens are acutely aware of the social nature of their data. They describe how students might compare their data with one another in school settings. For some, this is motivating as it encourages healthy competition; however, when taken too far, young people are concerned that it might have negative impacts on self-esteem and wellbeing. Teens share worries that these comparisons could lead to bullying both online and offline, separating out those who are ‘healthy’ from those who are not, as well as those who can afford to buy these tools and those who cannot. One 18-year-old male shared with us, “I feel the pupil with the lowest data will feel bad about themselves”. Teens are concerned about the privacy of their data and are often hesitant to share such personal health information with teachers and friends.

So, Where Next?

In short, researchers and technology designers have work to do. Our findings emphasise the importance of thinking carefully about if and how to integrate tracking into schools. We must recognise that there are differences between individual tracking and tracking that might be imposed in school settings. Teens know this and are often wary of giving up control of their data and how they choose to share it. This means that the same gamification and social comparison features often built into self-tracking tools may be neither appropriate nor helpful for teens in the social context of school.

Finally, relying on adult models of self-tracking alone won’t work for adolescents. We see great variation, and often contradictions, in how teens engage with these apps and devices. Assuming a ‘one size fits all’ approach does a disservice to adolescents’ creative capacity, individual experiences, behaviours, and knowledge. Instead, we should be embracing this variation in design, policy, and education to work alongside teens to develop self-tracking tools and approaches that fit their unique needs and circumstances. We hope that by considering these unique needs, we might recognise opportunities for teens’ positive use and enjoyment of self-tracking tools, while ensuring that they are fit for purpose.

Download the paper, ‘The challenge of repurposed technologies for youth: Understanding the unique affordances of digital self-tracking for adolescents’ co-authored by doctoral candidate Jaimie Lee Freeman and Professor Gina Neff, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford published in New Media and Society.

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