Wearable technology is part of a movement known as the “quantified self,” which assumes self-tracking leads to self-knowledge and ends with self-help. Better living through data, in other words — if you only knew the fine-grain details of your sleep patterns and exercise routines you would improve them. However, University of Pennsylvania researchers challenge the notion of wearable technology as an inspiration for reform and positive self-transformation.

“The gap between recording information and changing behavior is substantial,” state the authors in their new article, “and while these devices are increasing in popularity, little evidence suggests that they are bridging that gap.”

Our kind researchers are not just critics, though. They are set on changing this unfortunate circumstance with four suggestions to improve uses and effectiveness of wearable technology, which they believe will skyrocket in popularity. “Only one percent to two percent of individuals in the United States have used a wearable device, but annual sales are projected to increase to more than $50 billion by 2018,” they note. Considering Apple, Google, and Samsung have already entered the market with wearable devices in the form of bracelets, watches, and necklaces, this economic projection (or crystal ball prediction, as some like to say) may not be farfetched.

The 4 (Not 12) Steps

Their first suggestion in the “complex, multistep process” of promoting behavior change via some high tech tracking device is that a person must be able to afford one. (Right on, man.) The researchers note, “wearable devices seem to appeal to groups that might need them least. In a survey of wearable device users, 75 percent described themselves as “early adopters of technology,” 48 percent were younger than 35 years, and 29 percent reportedly earn more than $100,000 annually.” Meanwhile, the person with most to gain from running around with a wearable step tracking device attached to his belt is likely to be funding (from a bus driver’s salary) the educations of twin daughters hell-bent on going to vet school — in other words, someone older and with no cash to spare. While this may be changing, with less expensive tech and even rentals coming onto the market, their argument is valid and well-taken.

The second point the researchers make is that these devices generally require additional behaviors (such as recharging them) and often more equipment, since all that data often needs to be sent to and translated by a computer or other device. “One potential solution might be to better leverage smartphones; most people with these phones carry them often,” say our highly observant researchers.

Thirdly, “newer technologies, such as those that measure heart rate or sleep patterns, have not been well validated,” the researchers note. Going forward, then, wearable technology should be able to accurately track its targeted behavior, while also facilitating feedback. Precise yet also in-your-face pushy, they mean.

Finally, the researchers say the data gathered by a wearable device must be presented back to the user “in a way that can be understood, that motivates action, and that sustains the motivation toward improved health.” This fourth step, they readily admit, is not so easy. One possible approach would be to “leverage team-based designs and social norms feedback.” (We of Medical Daily hear you groan.) In other words, wearable devices might be more effective when used in groups, like at work (ugh), where peer support and accountability are built into the process.

They mean well. And, three out of four ain't bad.

Source: Patel MS, Asch DA, Volpp KG. Wearable Devices as Facilitators, Not Drivers, of Health Behavior Change. JAMA. 2015.