Olive Daniels

Staff Writer

Students across the Davidson campus embrace technology, using laptops, cell phones, and tablets to enhance their experiences of daily college life. In addition to these devices for both social media and academic use, Fitbits are also becoming a big part of many students’ daily routines. Fitbits – wearable fitness trackers that come in a variety of colors and styles – keep count of wearers’ daily steps, calories, sleep patterns and more. The device is synced with an app available on smartphones and tablets, through which wearers can monitor their own activity or progress, comparing days, weeks, months, or even years of data.

While Fitbits are becoming popular among the general population, there are about 80 Davidson students who are wearing them not just for personal reasons. These students are members of a clinical psychology project that is being conducted at Davidson called You@Davidson.

The You@Davidson study asks questions of members of the class of 2018 about their college experience. The questionnaires will produce findings which can help university and college professionals analyze, among other questions, what causes the most stress to college students and how, as leaders of institutions, they can make their academic or student life environments more conducive to student learning and health. Researchers are collecting data from the members of the class of 2018 through periodically distributed questionnaires, designed to better understand their patterns of exercise and sleep.

Similar studies are being conducted at the four schools that receive backing from the Duke Endowment. In addition to Davidson, researchers at Duke University, Furman University, and Johnson C. Smith University are conducting the study on their own campuses. Professor Emeritus of Psychology Dr. Cole Barton is leading the Fitbit component of the study. The ultimate questions, according to Barton, are: what promotes student growth, and what inhibits growth in relation to performance?

However, while Davidson remains a part of the larger study, Fitbits are only being used on Davidson’s campus. At the beginning of the study during the summer of 2014, members of the class of 2018 and their parents were given the option to fill out questionnaires and participate in the You@Davidson study for their entire careers at Davidson. At that point, around 400 students committed to participating. Now, however, only 170 students, according to Barton, remain in the program.

Eighty of these 170 students were introduced to the Fitbit element at the beginning of this semester. This part of the study officially began on January 24. Each student is expected to wear the Fitbit throughout the day, and researchers will analyze the recorded data. Those students who continue all the way through the study will get to keep their Fitbits upon graduation from Davidson.

Employees of Fitbit Inc., the company that produces Fitbits, are very interested in the results of the study, and Barton worked with the company to find the best way to gather all of the data from each student, while keeping his or her identity anonymous. In order to do so, a third-party software called Nudge was incorporated into the study. It acts by collecting the data from all the Fitbit wearers in the study and consolidating it in one place for the researchers. The use of a third-party app eliminates the self-reporting that is usually necessary for questionnaires. Because self-reporting can often result in skewed or inaccurate data, Barton sees the Fitbit monitoring as a superior method of data collection that inevitably “increases the quality of scientific evidence.”

As a device, Fitbits are well-suited to this type of research because they measure aspects like sleep and exercise “passively,” and they are very convenient for students to wear in their daily lives. However, Barton also recognizes the risk involved with the Fitbits; many college-age students are quick to “define themselves by numbers,” and Fitbit data is an easily accessible measure of daily performance. For this reason, Barton has concerns that some students may become unnecessarily stressed out about reaching a certain goal — taking a specific number of steps per day, for example — and become distracted by trying to achieve that number, instead of letting the device passively record uninterrupted daily activity. Barton worries that this kind of stress not only is detrimental to mental health, but also can lead to inaccurate data being reported if students make an effort to reach certain numbers.

Ultimately, the results of this study will be able to help Davidson administrative and student life staff best understand how to create more conducive environments to student growth and performance. Barton gives the following example: if, according to the Fitbit data, students are getting more sleep and performing better when they are abroad or on summer break than when at Davidson, perhaps student life will look into a stricter enforcement of quiet hours in dormitories.