Tiny computers are controlling your every move

An examination of the mental manipulation perpetrated by Apple Watches


A student wearing their Apple Watch while doing homework. Photo by Jess Kishbaugh, ’24.

Victoria Ernst

Time to Stand! My Apple Watch castigated me to stand up as I laid in bed, barely able to roll over. My body was limp from food poisoning, and I had barely consumed a handful of meager saltines in four days. A tiny computer shamed me for not reaching my move or exercise goals while I rapidly lost weight. 

I have been an Apple Watch user for eight months. As an avid runner, I wanted to purchase a more sophisticated watch to time my runs and track my pace before coming to college. I quickly learned that Apple Watches have the ability to track virtually any kind of workout – from weightlifting to hunting to mindfulness (or as Apple calls it, “mind and body”). Intrigued by these and wanting to improve my overall health, I began to track all of my workouts. I had always loved the satisfaction of getting a good workout, but I realized I began to measure a “good” workout based on my caloric expenditure according to my Apple Watch. 

I have been involved in sports since age 4 and am a current member of Washington and Lee’s Women’s Track and Field Team, so I’d say I’ve been pretty active my whole life. Until eight months ago I had never been conscious about my caloric intake or activity level; I just worked out when I had practice or when I wanted to in the off season. For some time, I found myself working out for extended periods of time in order to hit my sixty minutes of daily exercise; if I forgot to wear my watch, I felt like my workout never happened. Why did a 40mm screen have the ability to alter my perception of health?

Luckily, I quickly recognized the ability of Apple Watches to manipulate a user’s daily activities with the constant urge to “Close Your Rings.” Our bodies require rest after high levels of activity; this principle especially applies for athletes who need recovery in order to perform at their peak during competitions. I don’t think any healthy person should have a computer telling them when to stand or exercise; the human race has survived perfectly fine for more than 250,000 years without fitness tracking devices.

According to a 2021 Tech Times article, over 100 million people have Apple Watches. Half of those users are Americans. I wanted to see if anyone else has had a similar experience with this product, so I did some Google searches. First, I looked up “mental impacts of Apple Watches” and mainly found blog posts from health and wellness websites. These sites warned of the obsessive exercise habits that the devices can impose on users. Next, I searched “Apple Watches and Eating Disorders.” Almost every search was an article from a traditional news media source about Apple donating 1,000 watches to conduct a study about the body’s functions prior to a bulimic episode. I wondered why Google wouldn’t show any negative articles about Apple Watches potentially contributing to disordered eating or overexercising.

That’s when I found out that Apple and Google have a partnership. According to a 2020 Wall Street Journal article, for the past few years Google has paid Apple approximately $11 billion annually to keep Google as the main search engine for Safari. Even more shocking, 92% of Internet searches are made via Google. Could this economic partnership allow for the suppression of harmful effects of Apple Watches? 

I could be completely wrong, but I would not be surprised if the deal has a connection to the lack of available online research regarding user behavior and Apple Watches. To find some scientific evidence, I used Google Scholar search for the negative effects of Apple Watches. The most applicable study (which was the fifth search result), used a variety of fitness trackers, including Fitbit. According to this 2020 study on computers and human behavior, users reported feelings of guilt when they did not meet their set movement goals. Potentially, this mindset could lead to an overexercising problem. 

I should also point out that the lack of research regarding the psychological effects of Apple Watches could be due to the relatively young age of this technology; Apple released this product in 2015, and it takes years to develop solid evidence to form scientific conclusions. Or we’ll find out that my hypothesis is correct in the 2023 trial of the lawsuit investigating Google’s Sherman Antitrust Act violation.  

I do believe that fitness trackers can be helpful for a specific demographic. For example, those who have heart problems could benefit from such a device that tracks their heart rate. However, athletes and other perfectly healthy people do not need these devices. There are certain non-fitness aspects of the Apple Watch, such as its navigation features, that I like, but if you’re someone who is just looking to track your running, get a Garmin watch instead- you don’t need a computer telling you what to do.