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Use of fitness apps causing ‘anxiety’ among young people

Woman using fitness tracker

31.07.2020

The use of technology to track health and fitness has led to young people experiencing anxiety, pressure and fears that they might become obsessed, a new report has found.

The report, entitled ‘Digital Health Generation? Young people’s use of ‘healthy lifestyle’ technologies’, surveyed more than 1,000 young people aged between 13 and 18 over a two-year period.

It found that 70 per cent of respondents reported using digital technologies for health purposes, including websites, social media, wearable tech and mobile apps.

These technologies dominated how they learned about health, and made decisions about their own physical wellbeing.

But the report found that many of them worried about failing to meet targets, or failing to achieve the desired bodies.

As one respondent, 17-year-old Dylan, said, “a couple of days, I wouldn’t get over 10,000 [steps]. I was like, Why haven’t I done that, have I not been walking enough?”

YouTube proved the most popular source of health information, with 44% of survey respondents stating that they had used it for that purpose during the study period.

However, the risk of misinformation was a common concern, with 45 per cent of participants worried about finding the correct information online.

Another respondent, Andrew, 18, spoke of how easily searching symptoms online could lead to a “ridiculous” diagnosis that only made the person even more anxious.

He said, for example, typing in symptoms often produced an article wrongly suggesting “you've got cancer and you are going to die tomorrow”.

Pressure to look a certain way was another fear. While the young people surveyed were on the whole acutely aware of the potential for misinformation and fake images, many still aspire to look like the unrealistic bodies they see in images found online.

As 14-year-old Leif said, “There’s a fine line between going too far and developing an obsession with fitness, and then just being healthy.” He added that “if ever I do a workout, I’ll look in the mirror and be like, ‘Why am I not ripped yet?’”

The two-year Wellcome Trust research project, led by the University of Bath, University of Salford, and University of Canberra, makes a series of recommendations.

Those behind it see the development of digital literacy and adult support as crucial to promote positive and safe digital health experiences and argue that schools should be supported in educating young people about digital health as part of the health curriculum.

The report also calls for further examination of the digital industries in terms of the appropriateness and regulation of content being produced and shared around health.

Image: Skyline/stock.adobe.com


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