Using technology to make a habit of physical activity

Many parents trying to encourage their child to be active will be familiar with the frustration of hearing “just one more level” or “I’m right in the middle of Snapchatting with Chloe!”

Clearly, the increasing popularity of screen devices and video games has been working against getting kids being active. Many kids would rather play Minecraft, or spend time on musical.ly, or Snapchat, than go outside to throw a ball or ride a bike.

We know that screens and games aren’t going away. And technology may, in fact, offer a solution to the problem, because it may be able to help kids establish the habit of physical activity.

How habits are formed

The challenge with screen-based entertainment is that they become a pleasing habit for kids. People are creatures of habit, and there’s an accepted pattern to how they are formed.

A habit is a behaviour that becomes automatic after repeating it in a particular setting and consistently getting a reward. Consider, for example, eating cookies at grandma’s house. With repetition, a visit to Grandma’s house quickly becomes the cue that prompts the habitual routine or behaviour of eating cookies which leads to the rewarding pleasure that cookies deliver.

As it happens, this pattern of cue-routine-reward also describes how kids (and adults) become habitual users of social media, digital games, and apps.

Facebook and fitness apps

In his article “User Behaviour“, Michael Schulson explains how websites and other digital experiences are carefully engineered to create compulsive behaviours.

For instance, he shows us how a Facebook user might get hooked: A user is prompted to open a feed via an alarm or a message (cue) and then starts to scroll (routine or action) until finding a funny cat video or an amusing post (reward, depending on personal taste). The repetition of this rewarding experience creates a habit. And by “liking” or commenting on the cat video, the user becomes further invested in the cycle.

As it turns out, hundreds of mobile fitness apps are taking the same approach. Check out PC Magazine’s recommendations for the 25 best fitness apps of 2016. Many of the apps are using digital reward systems to persuade their users to get to the gym more often and get those extra reps done.

Using technology to create activity habits

What about using this same approach to get our kids physically active?

In the context of Facebook and gambling sites, there may be serious ethical questions around engineering digital behaviours to create habits. But what if our purpose is to help our children to establish physical activity habits and live healthier lives?

We know that the video game industry is not going to disappear, and we know that games are keeping kids indoors and sedentary. With a bit of cleverness, we can use the gaming technology that our kids love to help them develop good habits. However, the key is to make these apps and games fun for kids, and not just a program of fitness exercises that are better suited for adults.

It’s time to use technology in a way that makes being active fun. If we do it right, we may even be able to make physical activity as rewarding as watching videos on YouTube.

2 responses to “Using technology to make a habit of physical activity

  1. I enjoyed the tone of this post because this past year, my kids have launched their #getkidsout initiative. The premise is that social media isn’t going anywhere, so why not use it to our advantage to get kids outside, moving, and leading active lives. They started in February 2018 and released videos that they post to their Get Kids Out YouTube Channel. They try and come up with little projects to encourage kids to get out and this past summer they put together 10 treasure bags that they dropped across Canada and would then post where they dropped it on instagram and facebook. It has garnered some attention and they have recently partnered with Ever Active Schools and Shape Alberta to do soundbites and mini-videos to promote active transportation. Just this past weekend, they presented at the Live Active Summit in Edmonton on their initiative. Of course, it is parent-directed, but I think it’s a start…let’s embrace the fact that social media isn’t going anywhere and use it as a tool!!

  2. So much attention has focused on limiting screen time, it’s refreshing to see that leveraging screen time to benefit society is finally emerging.

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