Now We’re Spying on Fat Kids?

I saw this article in the New York Post (trigger warning for “obesity hysteria” talk, diet ads, and comments like you might expect).  The gist is that they are putting electronic activity monitors on kids as “reinforcement in fighting the obesity epidemic.” People in the article question the program. They ask if this is a privacy violation? They ask how safe the data on the website really is? Does the data pass along with the child from school to school? When will insurance companies want to get access to it? Will a school want to medicate a child that the monitor identifies as hyperactive?

I have some other questions:

The article said that the school in Long Island bought 10 of the devices.  Are they putting them on kids at random or are they actually singling out fat kids?

On what data are they basing the conclusion that monitoring students’ activity level in this way will affect obesity now and in the future?

What data are we using to determine a baseline for the amount of movement that a student “should” have?  How statistically valid is that baseline?

How accurate are these monitors?  How often do they malfunction?  How can they be tampered with or manipulated?

Since the program is non-optional and no parental signature is required (many parents had no idea that it was going on), how will it affect students with, or trying to recover from, eating disorders that the school might not be aware of?

Will this trigger eating disorders in students?

How will it affect the self-esteem of disabled kids?

What happens when the fat kids get lots of activity?  Do we finally start to question the simple calories in/calories out model or do we call the kid a liar and ask him how he’s cheating the system?

In one school “upper-grade students’ marks in phys ed are based in part on heart-rate monitors and activity sensors.”  What happens when there is a malfunction that affects a student’s GPA?  What about students with disabilities or those  struggling with depression or other mental illnesses whose symptoms include fatigue and lack of energy?

But mostly what I want to ask is: What the hell are we doing? We have lost our damn minds. Have you MET a teenager lately?  With the surliness and the rebellion?  There are much better ways to help kids develop a lifelong love of exercise than to spy on them electronically and threaten them with bad grades for non-compliance. Why are we not trying to develop intrinsic motivators when we know that research (Gneezy et al for example) shows that external incentives may work for the short term but they can crowd out the intrinsic ones that actually would have worked long-term.

I’ve talked before about the dangers that happen when we lose our rationality in a wave of  “won’t somebody think of the children” hysteria.  I think that spying on kids definitely qualifies. We can do better to help our kids honor their bodies signals and needs than to spy on them and threaten their grades.

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50 thoughts on “Now We’re Spying on Fat Kids?

  1. … the program is non-optional and no parental signature is required…

    Honestly, as a teacher, I am 1000% shocked that folks at a public high school thought this would be a prudent way to implement such a program. (Aside from the fact that the monitors themselves skeeve me out for all the reasons you mentioned.)

    It reminds me of discussions I’ve had with whether my employer’s health insurance policy should be allowed to require members with a BMI of 30 or more to need to log steps on a pedometer, enroll in Weight Watchers, or pay an additional premium. For me, I easily hit my steps per day, but I’m incensed by the principle of the thing. I signed the same contract and work the same job as my thinner colleagues; I am entitled to the same benefits.

    Basically, I think it’s coercive, manipulative, and abhorrent when this type of thing is done to adults who are able to give or refuse informed legal consent. When someone requires it of a minor — without giving a parent the chance to advocate or object — that’s just added levels of disgusting, right there.

    1. I agree with you totally. Also, as far as the BMI for insurance goes, my mom and I just talked about that last night. Her bf has to do that as well. Except he’s a VERY fit man, and quite thin – but somehow is over what they think his BMI should be. I think that is out-dated and there should be actual science put into it as some skinny woman may be ok on their BMI scale while she smokes 6 packs a day.
      Kids should just be made to go outside and play like we used to, or get rid of the shitty cafeteria food and snack machines our taxes pay for and get more veg instead of paying $900 to get these things + licensing for the software to read the likely incorrect data.
      Yup, encourage kids to be both ignorant AND eating-disordered. Great job, public schools. Great job.

  2. I continue to see a trend where people keep giving up privacy and personal rights for all of these things! It is horrific! The future and what can be done with this information to control and hurt people as a whole has immense ramifications! Why do the sheeple not see this? It can pervade every aspect of our lives where we will have no personal freedoms at all.

    Locally, the biggest health care provider (HMO) Geisinger just instituted a new hiring policy that they don’t hire smokers. I am not a smoker, have asthma, so can understand why they did this. However, I don;t support it. Why? Erosion of rights. What’s next? If your cholesterol or BP is too high, or you have diabetes, etc you won’t get a job? How long before all employers start that? Of if your BMI is too high, you won’t get health coverage? Folks, once you open the door to that slippery slope, we have all lost.

    Sadly, I think back to when I was a kid. We played outside and were very active, not tied to computers or TV. I remember when Atari came out and MTV. Loved them both, BUT, it didn’t take the place of active playing outdoors with real people real games in the real world. And we were all a lot healthier. Go figure.

  3. Since the program is non-optional and no parental signature is required

    They’re gathering personalized data about these kids? And no parental signature is required? There’s in loco parentis but I can’t imagine how that could apply here. I’m trying to understand how this passed muster.

    I’m foreseeing ugly school board meetings and lawsuit threats, especially now that someone at the ACLU is aware. And that’s how it should be.

    1. I had the same thought, that they use tags on criminals and now they want to use something similar on children.

      If it were part of an experiment and it was optional and the parents knew about it, I’d not have a problem, I think a lot of people would be interested in the data, but the sneaky way they are doing it – with apparently no controls or guidelines on what the data will be used for or how long it will be stored is disgusting.

  4. I don’t know what’s more frightening: that they assume the kids will be too ashamed or used to this type of harassment to tell their parents, or that they assume their parents would be fine with it anyway.

    If some teenagers aren’t being active enough (I’m going to assume they’re going by the 30/60 minutes a day thing and nothing bigger), fat or not, the school should focus on why they aren’t exercising. Does the school not offer enough sports? Is it offering the wrong types? More likely, are the fat kids being bullied – by the other kids and by the teachers – if they dare to try? But solving these problems would require thoughtful effort on the part of the school, so of course they go for this instead.

    1. Sports in high school tends to be VERY exclusive. For example, I LOVED playing volleyball and I was good at it, as long as I served UNDERhand. In high school, you can’t serve underhand, you have to serve OVERhand. I can’t serve overhand to save my life. I remember being at the tryouts and trying trying trying to do an overhand serve. I didn’t even bother to see if I got on the team, I just left, frustrated with the fact that I could not do it. They may have sports teams in high school but they make it so that only the best get in and if you’re not the best, forget it. I wish they would have the option of having sports teams for those who ENJOY those sports but just may not be great at it or maybe great in some way but not in others IE, my example with the underhand serve vs the overhand. I never played sports in high school and my weight ended up going up (ESPECIALLY after I was put on Zoloft at 15, ended up hospitalized six months later, and struggled horribly with depression forever after even though the ONLY reason I was put on it in the first place was because I happened to mentioned to the doctor that I felt stressed out, a REGULAR doctor, mind you, not a psychiatrist and the Zoloft made me more depressed). It did stabilize but then I went to college and totally messed it up there. I wonder if I had had the option to participate in school sports if that would have helped at all. I enjoyed sports in elementary and middle school but just wasn’t athletic enough in high school and it only got worse as time went on.

      1. I did play sports, field hockey, basketball and soccer. I think it sure helps. An interesting thing happened to a friend’s daughter this past year. Emily is a senior at a school in Mathias, ME. She and the rest of the girls on the basketball team had a great record, very good team and Emily was one of the best players all through high school. But Emily is about 5’2 and heavier built. She is solid, a farm girl and horsewoman and outdoors person, very active. They got a new coach for the senior year for the girl’s team and Emily did not make the cut! And neither did most of her friends who were excellent players but built like her, not skinny! Who did? Tall skinny blondes with long ponytails who couldn’t play worth crud. Emily was asked to be the mascot as an afterthought. The coach admitted he wanted a certain “image”. The joke was on him, those other girls couldn’t play crap and the school canned him, got another coach and Emily and her team mates were back in business playing, and winning…again. How sad was that?

      2. Oh wow, that is insane that a coach would actually do that and be more concerned about how the girls looked than if the team actually could play! Crazy!

      3. I absolutely agree. Sports are for everyone, not just the very best, they are good for you and more importantly they can be a great deal of fun. I think the modern Olympics are a bit rubbish for the same reason.

        And the idea that fat girls can’t be good at sport really pisses me off. I was very fit as a young teenager, but I was a little chubbier than my classmates (in retrospect it was just that I was a little more developed, but I grew up to be a fat woman anyway), and less pretty. I was only picked to play for the school when someone else was ill/injured. Even the girls on the teams who I didn’t get along with thought it was wrong of the coaches. Funny, but I’d forgotten about this until reading Helga’s post. I gradually accepted the belief that I was too fat and ugly for sports. Pretty sad

      4. Y’know, I don’t know if that coach was size-prejudiced. That sounds vaguely pervy and more than a little creepy to me…. I think maybe Emily was very, very lucky not to have been around that coach, and that the cops might have been involved if he’d stayed more than one season.

    2. I didn’t play sports in school because,

      1. I have to admit, I was lazy
      2. I valued my after school free time too much to fill it up with 3 hours after school every day playing sports
      3. I was more of a girly girl, didn’t like to play rough
      4. Most of the sporty people were “popular and preppy” people who I didn’t like at the time, and they didn’t like me.

      I think kids need activities they like to do…for me it was trampoline, swimming, gymnastics or similar event type of activities, and dancing.

      1. I think parents who are concerned about their kids being active should invest in some things to put out in the yard to get them going. Growing up, we had swing sets, bad mitton setup, a trampoline, bikes, roller blades, etc. Nowadays kids are all about videogames, tv, and being online, and that’s what is killing their activity levels.

        1. That said, this sort of assumes that all parents have yards. I teach in an area where a lot of folks live in close trailer parks and apartment complexes. There are no yards.

          Additionally, they live in a fairly high crime area. Fear of getting hurt or killed — that is what is killing their activity levels (and all the more reason we look to provide safe activity at school).

      2. Oh, that’s what I meant! Sports as a general thing, not just team sports. Of course not all kids want to play football or whatever. And of course some won’t want to participate at all, but there should never be children who want to do some kind of enjoyable exercise but lack the option.

      3. Easier said than done Ashley. The complex we live in is pretty much a ghetto or close to it. We live on the second story. Downstairs get all of the yard space (which is a laugh to begin with) AND the sidewalk space in front of their apartments. The back is loaded with all kinds of crap that they threw back there because they could no longer have it in the front and probably dog poop too. The front DEFINITELY has dog poop, broken glass, among other things. Sure, I could have my daughter play outside. My husband would have a COW! The kids who live down there aren’t the best influence and he doesn’t want her near them at all. And it’s winter in WI so there aren’t a lot of options. We did get a membership to the children’s museum so the plan is to start going more often there but it’s not that easy to just get trampoline’s out in the yard and stuff. Not to mention, a lot of places LEGISLATE the heck out of that kind of stuff due to liability. Believe me, if I could send the kids out, I would. I babysit for an almost 4 year old who has SO much energy he’s almost literally bouncing off of my walls but there’s just no place to send them and even with the park only four blocks away, it’s going to be a challenge getting four kids there when two of the streets I have to cross are major thoroughfares.

  5. gattica here we come…i have been saying for years that this obesity epidempic is gonna bite the thin folks in the ass. I keep remembering that scene where everybody hs to raise their heart rate for 30 min by wearing a monitor at the gym…and they HAVE to go to the gym….HOw many people out there would be pissed if they were FORCED to expersize 30 min daily….because once they start making fatties wear them and then we sue, its only a short leap to EVERYBODY has to wear them.

  6. I thought it was bad enough when I was in high school where they would take you back and have you take off your shirt so somebody could weigh you and pinch you with some metal contraption to have your body fat taken. It was super uncomfortable. And of course a week later you would get a letter telling you all of the things you were doing wrong at that at 14, there was a good chance you would not make it to 30 (I’m 28 now and have had no major health problems, so if I’m to die in less than two years they better hurry up and start coming on, hmm…)

    But this is beyond ridiculous. And not legal. So yeah, good luck with that one you dippidy do da’s.

  7. I got through the first two paragraphs and had to close the window for fear that my son would either see me get sick or throw my coffee at the TV because of the whole idea. Yeah, I should have heeded your warning.

    This reminds me of when I was in middle school, actively using Dexatrim (unknown to my parents, I used my allowance) and the school nurse started a massive fear campaign against me (and a handful of other fat students) without my mother’s knowledge. I was terrified because she started telling me some pretty horrible stuff. Naturally, being the frightened, overly emotional, fat kid that I was, I told my mom that afternoon when I saw her. She. Was. LIVID! Bless that woman, she tore into the school nurse for that one.

    Now, as a mother of a special needs child, anything and everything that goes on during my son’s education is something I am involved in. If I were to find out that his school was doing something like this I would seriously go Demolition Man on someone. Children have enough going on in their lives, they don’t need someone shaming them at every corner.

    I seriously can’t wrap my head around the “logic” they used to get to this point.

  8. This is absolutely unspeakable. I think that I need to take more time to process just how outraged I am by this idea.

    And ‘if some kids are not moving ‘enough'”? How is that anyone’s business but their own? No one should have the right to decide for anyone else how much movement is ‘enough’. Everyone is different, everyone has different interests & priorities. You would be amazed, considering all the yapping we hear these days, at the number of people who do/have lived fairly sedentary lives who managed to live a full lifespan without appreciably more health issues than a lot of very active people. And if someone does drop dead at 30 (which happens to some people & not necessarily fat ones either), well, it’s that person’s life which is lost, not anyone else’s, not any damn nanny’s. How did it become the sworn duty of every damn person to try to live to be at least 100 while never looking over 30, all while people keep having children, the world becomes more crowded, & people bitch about running out of room/resources, about pollution, about all those damned ‘old people’ taking room, food, medical care, etc., which is ‘more needed’ &/or ‘more deserved’ by those who are younger & more productive? When did ‘love thy neighbor’ become ‘spy on my neighbor & become his/’her nanny, decide that I know better than another person how he/she should live’? If they had pulled shit like this when my sons were in school, the fur would have been flying. If they pull shit like this with my little granddaughter, the fur WILL be flying.

    Indeed, it is beyond ridiculous…& illegal…& inhumane. Of course, it all fits in with the overall atmosphere around us now, the culture which had the governor of New Jersey on a news show this morning shamed & apologetic about his fat & promising to work harder this time to get thin & stay thin (I was not watching, but my husband likes to watch MSNBC ‘Morning Joe’) & then the female host of said show commenting that she really hopes he does it this time, as he needs to for the sake of his own health & to set a good example for the people of his state. Just how the hell does SHE know what is best for his state & does she really think that the most important ‘example’ a politician can set is by controlling the size of his body? At least HE is an adult & he is the one who is permitting himself to be bullied.

    We talk about the strides we make in fat acceptance, but I don’t know. It seems as if things are going backwards & that fat hatred & discrimination grows steadily worse.

    1. Happened to think of something last night and did a little digging around online. Years ago, when I was not quite 11, there was a very popular news anchorwoman for this local station we used to watch (actually, not that local considering we had closer ones but she was EXTREMELY popular). I remember doing homework one afternoon and I just happened to look up at the TV to see one of those things pictures you see on TV sometimes when someone dies with the date of birth and date of death on it and it was this anchorwoman! I thought maybe I was seeing things but no, she had died at the age of 31. It came out that she had both anorexia and bulimia and being on TV made it worse. She had sisters and friends who tried to get her help, actually tried to get a court order to get her admitted for treatment but the judge couldn’t do anything. She wasn’t an immediate danger to herself or others. She died two and a half years after that court date. It was still her choice and no one could do anything about it. It was a huge deal too, even ended up on Dateline NBC and this was a town of 85,000 in Wisconsin.

        1. Which brings me to a hot topic in the news…I’m a foodie to a point, have my own cooking blog. I make both healthy and not so healthy dishes, and also lighten up some old favorites. Paula Dean is getting raked over the coals because supposedly (not yet confirmed), she now has type 2 diabetes and the media is all over this saying she will have to rebrand herself etc etc. for being a terrible unhealthy cook. I have an issue with this. Never once has she said she was low fat! Never once did she proclaim to be anything other than she was. I should have the right to like her food or recipes or not! Nothing is going to kill you in moderation, and they seem to have forgotten that diabetes is often hereditary as well. Violence is bad and the studies numerous of its affect on people, but I don’t see anyone doing anything about that or a host of other issues! Who the hell are they to tell us we can’t watch or cook what we want! (Sorry, this just really ticked me off and goes with all of this. The skinny bitch on FOX having a field day with this admitted she’d die first before eating butter……..)

  9. Um how does that not violate right to privacy? I don’t want someone monitoring my kid just because they consider them to fat.

  10. In my PE class in high school, we had to wear heartrate monitors for a few weeks. The monitors were on elastic bands that wrapped around the chest. They had to sit against our skin (under shirts and bras), and several classes shared the same monitors. Students were supposed to wipe down the monitors with alcohol between classes, but still, ew.

  11. I second EVERY feeling that’s been presented here in the blog and the comments – but the one thing that I have not seen addressed is that these monitors are also monitoring kids’ activity WHILE IN THE CUSTODY OF THEIR PARENTS AT HOME. Who the LIVING FUCK do these arrogant, hubristic assholes think they ARE??? If this were my kid, I’d be delivering that $90 nightmare to the school superintendent’s desk in SHARDS.

    This is medical information they are collecting. Are teachers now health administrators? Are they going to sign off on HIPAA and carry malpractice insurance? As far as I’m concerned, this borders on practicing medicine without a license. I’m well past incensed and right into BLISTERING territory.

    1. That is a really excellent point, thank you. And I love the visual of you walking into the Superintendents office with a baggie full of monitor bits.



      1. not to mention but there are all kinds of warnings not to use “monitors” of any type especially like the ones that test BMI when pregnant or if you have pacemaker, etc…

        well news flash even girls as young as middle school might be pregnant and not tell you!!

  12. I has to use an activity monitor when I was much younger as part of a study about obesity and exercise. At the time I was an avid swimmer and gymnast – I attended weekly trampolining sessions which would last 2-3 hours-.

    When the results came back, I was mortified that my thrice-weekly hard exercise had been omitted from the results, claiming that the exercise I had done was discounted for….I believe because it was “an exception” to what I had been doing the rest of the week, and that I must still consume far more than I burn.

    Apparently wearing myself out with hard, athletic exercise doesn’t count if you spend even one day being a bit relaxed.

  13. Did anyone else notice that the NY Post article states these monitors ARE ALREADY IN USE in St. Louis and South Orange NJ? Me thinks a letter-writing campaign directed at Polar Active activity monitor is needed.

    1. As a Kansas Citian, that jumped right out at me, and that’s where the monitor use has been done under the parents’ radar. I couldn’t find a petition against this, though, and I think the onus is on the folks who are directly affected to start the petition. I’m not sure in this case, however, because the more schools use them, the more schools will want to use them. I think I’m going to sit back and watch where the ACLU goes with it first.

  14. Don’t young girls have a difficult enough time as it is dealing with the notion that their worth is based upon how young and beautiful they are? Doesn’t this sort of monitoring feed more and more into that notion? Why would we want to reinforce this idea? What does it teach those girls and the boys with whom they attend school?

    Ah, but what do I know? I am only a music teacher.

  15. Wow, reading this made me really sad. Some kids are just chubby, especially when they’re younger, and yes, *sometimes* it might mean they need to be more active and perhaps eat healthier, but not always! I was a fat kid, but I was always out doing something, bike riding, swimming, playing at the park, etc. And yes, I preferred cheesies over carrots, so did my skinny friends (what kid wouldn’t?), but neither of us ate them everyday. I remember my grandmother commented on how chubby I was, and blamed it on my short torso. Of course I had a “short torso”, I was 10 years old for goodness sakes. And then she had the audacity to compare my 10 year old child-body to my 17 year old cousins fully developed one, appraising hers because it was skinny. Needless to say, I’m 22 years old now and that hurts just as much or even more today than it did then. I have never felt like a woman because I got the impression that to be a real women you had to be slim, and I have always been fat. (Of course I know this is a lie, but that’s how I felt growing up and it stuck with me). From a young age I was made to feel like there was something wrong with me, even though my exercise and eating habits were fine, then I felt like I needed to change. I remember going to my mom at around the same age telling her that I wasn’t going to eat anything over 70 calories. I was a kid! And the only reason I began to think like that was because I thought something drastic had to happen. I also felt like I wasn’t allowed to eat when I was younger. There were times I would get in trouble for asking for food even though I was genuinely hungry. That led to closet and binge eating when I was older.

    The people who set this up might have good intentions, but clearly they have no idea how damaging this can be. I wonder if any of them ever struggled with weight or eating disorders themselves. The kids who go under this could begin to feel guilty for having a treat or not doing a certain amount of exercise each day. Do we want our small children to be so concerned with weight? Instead let’s teach them to just live healthy; eat healthy and find an activity that you love to do, such as soccer or swimming or gymnastics. Or, dare I say, focus on building character, intelligence, perseverance, and essential skills to give them confidence. Let our kids be kids and have fun so that they can grow up to be healthy in every aspect of their lives, not just physically.

    Sorry, I kind of went on a rant here and probably went way off track. I just felt very passionate about this.

  16. Here’s another side to the heart monitor in gym class scenario. My twins who were nationally ranked high school athletes actually had points deducted because they couldn’t get the heart rate monitors high enough. Because they were in such great shape, the only way was to full out run for the entire allotted time–which isn’t an easy thing for a strength athlete!

    This makes me want to discuss with my son each and every day what the people at school are giving him. I mean, all the low-fat treats he gets at lunch as rewards for good behavior are driving me crazy. Skinny cows? Ugh! Give him some real ice cream, for God’s sake!

    ps when the twins’ cardiologist heard about the heart monitor in PE thing, he was livid!

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