Too Much Information!

Head of Prep Will Dunlop writes for Attain, the IAPS magazine

Wearable activity trackers have become steadily more mainstream and more popular over the last few years, so much so that an increasing number of children are wearing them.  Used well, the data they provide can be invaluable in developing a healthy lifestyle and in promoting fitness. The trouble is that the data is very rarely used well, in fact the way it is presented can be positively harmful.  Young, impressionable minds are particularly susceptible to obsessive behaviour in pursuit of arbitrary goals. I know of teenagers who will go to bed early because their trackers say they should and so miss out on events that would be beneficial to them.  Parents of teenagers long for that level of control! Meanwhile a colleague of mine stopped wearing her tracker when she found herself going out for a walk late at night instead of going to bed just because she was a little short of her 10,000 steps. Not only was she losing sleep, she was putting herself at risk.  Fortunately she is sensible enough to realise it and to do something about it.

I have a tracker myself, a Garmin Forerunner 235, and it has its uses.  An hour into meetings it buzzes and tells me to move. Sometimes I wish it would tell everyone else in the meeting to move, but perhaps you have to upgrade for that.  Last year I set myself a challenge to run 1,000 miles in the calendar year, and my tracker proved invaluable in keeping me up to the necessary weekly mileage. However, I learned the hard way that I had to be careful with statistics.  One evening in June I pushed too hard for a personal best on a favourite route, pulled a hamstring and put myself off the road for three weeks. It was the only time I fell behind the target mileage all year. Had I stuck to a more comfortable pace I would have finished much sooner.  I discovered that I started running better in the winter, not because of the cooler weather (the mud counteracted that effect), but because I started wearing long-sleeved tops which stopped me from looking at my wrist quite so often.

In preparing this article I did what I often do when I have to think about something: I went for a run.  I ran 9.51 kilometres in 0:57:12 at an average pace of 6:01/km, climbing 163 metres, burning 1,132 calories at an average heart rate of 150 beats per minute and an average cadence of 166 steps per minute, amassing something called a “suffer score” of 76.  That is just the start: dig a little deeper and I can see exactly what pace I was doing where and how all this data compares with the other times I have run this route, not to mention when those runs were. I even know what shoes I was wearing, and exactly how many miles I have done in them since first taking them out of the box.  It will apparently take me 29 hours to recover, by which time it will be 10.51pm, the temperature will be 2° and there will be a 5% chance of precipitation. “T – M – I”, as my Year 8 girls might put it, and they would be quite right. It is quite possible to become dangerously obsessive about any of those statistics. Fortunately at 43 years old I know that none of them are likely to get any better.  I am just glad to be out on my feet and to be able to experience the view of the Blackmore Vale from the top of Hambledon Hill. The impressionable teenager with a thirst for statistics and a tracker for a birthday present may not see it in quite the same way.

There is another problem.  Every piece of information about my run is easily available on social media.  The most basic analysis of my profile will reveal where I live, what I look like, where I am likely to be at 5pm on a Saturday, which direction I might be travelling, whether I am likely to be with anyone else and what I am likely to be wearing.  I am 185cm and 91 kilograms so that does not bother me too much, but I would not want anyone to have that information about my children.

In any case, children are generally so active that trackers are entirely superfluous.  Accurate statistics for an average level of activity are hard to find because children cannot generally wear trackers for sports activities at school, but pupils in my school average over 12,000 steps per day even without counting games and PE lessons.  The record in my sample was a Year 6 boy who amassed 24,976 steps before 8pm, though admittedly he wore his tracker for cross-country which had taken place that day. It appears that the only time he stopped was to play the games that rewarded him for moving so much.

In short, we need to be careful.  Responsible, well-meaning parents hear about a perceived problem – childhood inactivity – and are responding to it without examining whether it is actually a problem for their individual child.  The solution that many of them are choosing is so engaging and so detailed that it presents unforeseen risks of obsessive behaviour and overwork, and it also contributes to another quite different problem of online safety.  None of this is intentional; it is simply the result of a 21st century phenomenon. For the first time in history, we have too much information.

Human beings have evolved to operate in the absence of sufficient information.  We make judgements and solve problems. We experiment and ask questions. We develop creative ways of finding out what we need to know.  We evaluate information, considering its reliability and relevance. Children have an instinct to do this, as anyone who has ever been asked “Why?” by a five year old will know.  Education should develop this instinct, applying it both to theoretical and real-life situations so that children are able to face the uncertainties of the future with confidence.  Giving them arbitrary targets and excessive data merely teaches them to obey blindly, the very last thing they should be doing.

The American sociologist William Bruce Cameron famously wrote that “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”  The latter clause has always seemed to me to be indisputable, but the exponential growth of data that we are now experiencing has made the first clause more relevant than ever.  For data to be useful it has to be selected carefully and used wisely. In the information age the task of selecting and analysing it becomes significantly more difficult. Parents and teachers have a responsibility to teach children to use data well, to be selective and to protect their privacy.  Above all, we need to remember that statistics are meant to work for us and not vice versa. Being human still comes first. Sometimes it is best just to run free, and to watch the sun go down over the hills.