When the Apple Watch was released in April of 2015, it was initially marketed as a fitness tool. Apple stepped away from the world of music streaming and cell phones to compete with brands such as Fitbit to create a fitness tracker that could do almost anything. Since its release, the watch has evolved to encapsulate a variety of ways to track fitness and diet. However, while these new tools make the watch beneficial for those with a healthy outlook on diet and exercise, it can pose a danger to those who struggle to balance the two; ultimately, the potential harm of the watch depends on the user and what they want to achieve.
Similar to other wearable fitness trackers, the Apple Watch works, in part, because it is annoying — especially for people who bought the watch without intending to track their health and fitness. Through the ring function, the watch turns movement, standing and even breathing into a sort of game. When you close each ring, you get a notification and a satisfying buzz that congratulates you on hitting your goal for the day. Beyond this, you can earn different badges, create competitions with friends, set streaks for the number of days you’ve worked out and compare your daily workouts to track the progress that you have made.
Some argue that the reason the Apple Watch functions as well as it does is because it disrupts the concept of the “magic circle.” The “magic circle” refers to the set boundaries within time and space that traditional games exist in. An example of this would be sitting down to a table to play a game of Monopoly; when you stand to leave the table, you exit the game until you are ready to return again.
Apple Watches disrupt the “magic circle” because there is no distinct beginning or end to the watch’s “game.” You may put on the watch intending to keep track of time, but soon, you will begin to receive notifications reminding you to stand. For people who enjoy tracking their physical well-being, the Apple Watch’s health features are something enjoyable and productive, but for those with a less-than-stable relationship with diet and exercise, the calorie-counting component and the watch’s push to compete with yourself could pose a danger.
While the pre-downloaded apps could contribute to an unhealthy relationship with food and exercise, one study demonstrates that this ultimately depends on how the watch is used in the first place. Apple was sure to give an example of the watch’s positive aspects when they donated over 1,000 watches to the Binge Eating Genetics Initiative Study; the goal of the study was to provide the foundation for a treatment plan that could stop behaviors associated with eating disorders before they are able to start.
The Apple Watches that were donated to the study featured an app meant to aid recovery from eating disorders. Thus, there is an argument that the watch and any associated potential harm depends entirely on the user. Yet, depending on a person’s mental and physical health, it might be difficult to avoid the obsessive behaviors associated with some of the apps’ features, especially calorie counting.
The Apple Watch also shares another feature with similar personal health devices: It can be cheated. For example, something as simple as shaking your wrist when you’re sitting down registers as standing time on the watch. This means that you could easily receive a notification congratulating you on completing a standing goal during the day, even if you’ve spent most of your time sitting on the couch.
Intentionally or not, the rewards that the watch offers — even if they are as small as a notification — feeds into a theory developed by B.F. Skinner. Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning established the concept that behaviors that are rewarded will continue while those that are punished will end quickly.
The watch provides a wonderful example of this in most cases: Though a notification may seem small and insignificant, it is hard to discount the excitement that comes with the recognition that a goal, no matter how small, has been achieved. This reward reinforces behaviors associated with fitness. While behaviors that are not associated with fitness aren’t punished, a lack of physical activity does trigger a series of passive-aggressive notifications from the watch.
Ultimately, it is our response to the Apple Watch’s features that determines how it affects us, but with that said, its designers have made sure that the device can be very persuasive.