Fitbit Watches and Mental Health

My clients’ constant glance at their watches and my conversations with my cousin really got me to thinking about these things.  Are they really that good for our health?

When I saw people as a mental health provider, I began to notice they were starting to look at their watches all the time.  At first, I wondered, “Am I really that boring?”  Why. I wondered, were they checking the time?  The session has just started, and the discussion seemed to be a, well, healthy discussion.  What was going on? 

Now I must admit that while I find computerized technology fascinating and have kept up with computers fairly well, I’m not a fan of smart phones.  Yes, I have one, but it’s not even in my office as I write this.  I’m not sure where it is to be honest, but if it rings or alarms, I may head towards the sound and see what is going on…if I want to.  Other than that, I take an occasional picture (I really prefer my Nikon Z6 for that) and sometimes play Plants vs. Zombies if I’m waiting for someone, or I have the Kindle app and will read a book occasionally (I prefer to use my laptop for that).  I guess what I’m saying is I’m not a smart phone aficionado and although I have one, they do not dominate my life.  So, when I my clients kept looking at their smart watches, I was aware that such things existed, but really had no idea what a smart watch does.

Am I really that boring?

Finally, after months of thinking I was boring, I finally asked someone “What are you doing?  What do you keep looking at?”  As it turns out, the watch was connected to their phone and every time they would get an email or a text, it would show up on their watches.  Amazing!  I could understand why some of the parents might be interested if they had children at home but come on.  The great thing about texts and emails is their asynchronous nature.  You don’t have to read them right away especially if you are doing something important.  The mail/text can wait.

I could write a book on the problems that different Internet platforms cause for committed relationships, but for now, I want to focus on the Fitbit, Apples’ version of the smart watch. 

Last weekend was Easter weekend and we gathered with family and friends for the Holiday.  One of my cousins has a Fitbit and he is fixated on it, showing anyone who would look what the watch told him, how many hours he slept, how many steps he has walked, what his heart beat is and who knows what else.  One of the features he is fascinated with is that he can take a picture with his phone by activating it with his watch.  That feature is good for family photographs so all who are there can get in the photograph.  It is pretty neat, but my cousin obsesses on it and won’t let it go until we all agree to a picture.  On this particular day, he was showing us his sleep patterns, which is also quite “interested” in (translated, obsesses upon) and commented that his doctor wanted him to lose the watch.  Far from helping him maintain a healthier lifestyle, it was causing him so much anxiety that the doctor feared it was harming his health, or at least his mental well-being.  I advised him that he should listen to his doctor, but he does not want to give up his Fitbit, so he is seeking a second opinion.  I guess mine didn’t count.  Go figure.

My clients’ constant glance at their watches and my conversations with my cousin really got me to thinking about these things.  Are they really that good for our health?

Some studies suggest that Fitbits are useful tools, but when they become something that controls our lives, I am concerned that anxiety and depression may not be far behind.

The first thing that must be stated is that there are studies that suggest that the Fitbit is an “acceptable tool” and can even help lessen depressive symptoms (“Acceptability of the Fitbit in behavioural activation therapy for depression: a qualitative study,” BMJ Journals, Acceptability of the Fitbit in behavioural activation therapy for depression: a qualitative study | Evidence-Based Mental Health (bmj.com), accessed 18 April 2022).  However, this study used a rather small sample and it was not longitudinal, which means it did not examine effects over a long period of time.  Studies that look at a larger sample and try to assess effectiveness in an everyday setting are not quite so optimistic.  While some suggest that it may be a useful tool, others question its accuracy and its ability to truly aid in monitoring symptoms that either identify or reduce mental health issues.  Still the warnings of other studies remind me of a scene from Wonder Woman.  When Wonder Woman stumbles upon Steve Trevor bathing in healing pools, she asks him as he stand up from the pool “What’s that?”  Steve is not sure if she is referring to parts of his anatomy but quickly realizes she is asking about a watch, something that Wonder Woman knows nothing of.  Steve explains that a watch “tells time.”  It is a device that helps order his day, when he goes to sleep, gets up, eats, etc.  Wonder Woman’s response is interesting.  She asks “You let this little thing tell you what to do?”  Steve suggests this may be the case and Wonder Woman responds with rolled eyes, an analogical way of inferring that it is ridiculous to let that little thing have so much power over what we do.

From my quick perusal of the different studies that have been done, skepticism of the usefulness of the Fitbit is directly proportionate to those who allow smart devices tell them what to do, from the calories they eat, the hours they sleep and the steps they take.  The more people “trust” their Fitbits and smart phones, the more likely they are to not only allow it to tell them how to behave, but they start making goals based upon how the Fitbit responds to what they are doing.  One participant kept upping the amount of steps he took each day until after reaching 65,000 steps, he finally realized that there was no end to this and gave up the Fitbit less he walk himself to death.  This is my concern.  Modern media platforms and the instruments they stream across such as smart phones and Fitbits can and often do create unrealistic expectations for those who wear them and can also affect the relationships they keep.  For example, we were out to eat with good friends when the woman suddenly stood up and walked off.  Looking at her spouse, we wondered what was going on.  He replied, “Oh, her watch told her she needed to take more steps to achieve her goal, so she got up to walk around.”   The watch interfered with the meal and our visit.  I thought it strange that the steps couldn’t have waited until we finished our visit.  My cousin is another case in point and his medical provider warned him that allowing that thing to control his life was affecting his mental health and he should be cast it aside.

I am not a Luddite.  I enjoy technology as much as the next person and think modern technology has made tremendous advances, most of which enhance our lives and are helpful.  But when the technology begins to determine not only our behaviors, but also our interests that easily pass into obsessions, I get off the train.  When a phone, a watch, a video game, a TV, or a computer becomes something we can’t do without and is something we cannot put down or turn off, then they are counterproductive and threaten to hinder our well-being more than enhance it.  What’s more, in my practice as a mental health professional, I have noticed that some people—similar to addicts—are more open to the obsessions offered by these devices than others and like an addict, they need to learn how to do without.  As the object of their obsession, the device begins to dominate their life and when that happens, depression and anxiety do not lurk far behind.

Published by Harold W. Anderson

I am a retired United Methodist Minister working in private practice as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT). I also work in addiction issues and am a Certified Addiction Counselor, level III (CAC III). I also supervise graduate students working on their Master Degrees and supervise Candidates in Training who are working towards licensure. My desire to provide a window of hope to those with whom I work that they live in a world of opportunity.

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