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Slouch Potatoes: Kids, Computers, and Ergonomics

An Unusual Profession
Diane Tien has a different kind of job: She teaches kids how to sit properly at the computer. An instructional technology assistant at the Blackwell Elementary School in Redmond, Washington, she is one of only a handful of school personnel whose job it is to teach children about ergonomics. At a time when schools spend millions on technology -- hardware, software, and teacher training - the risk and prevention of computer-related injuries remains virtually ignored.

"We're missing the point if we're going to invest heavily in teaching kids to use this tool, and then not take into account their physical interaction with the computer, how kids' bodies work when they're using these things," says Tien.

The Blackwell School offers a one-week program for kids called "Get Tech Fit." In the gym, children rotate through "ergocise" stations to become more conscious of proper posture and muscles used while working at a computer.

"There are simple things kids can do to form good habits," Tien observes. "The younger we can teach them, the more likely this is a life skill they'll have."

Lack of Research on Kids' Computer-Related Injuries
As children spend longer hours working on computers - now an average of one to three hours per day, by most estimates - it becomes prudent to consider their risk of developing repetitive stress injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Yet despite the vast attention on the importance of technology in our culture, no one really knows what the impact is on children. The few studies that do exist have been conducted outside of the United States.

"Nobody is collecting any data on children," laments Dr. Alan Hedge, professor of ergonomics at Cornell University. He believes there is "widespread base for concern," given the younger ages and longer hours at which children use the computer.

A survey conducted by student Adam Deutsch at Briarcliff High School in Briarcliff, NY, offers one of the first glimpses of computer-related health complaints among teenagers. Although the raw data is statistically inconclusive, widespread reports of neck pain by teens at the school have prompted researchers at Cornell University to launch plans for a national Internet survey.

"If you think about it, a child's bones are not fully calcified until they are almost adults," Hedge says. "What we don't know is what permanent impact it will have on the calcification of the bones of the body, if a child spends years working in a poor posture."

Hedge urges parents to "manage" children's computer usage. One of the most important things to do, he advises, is also the simplest: make sure kids take breaks every 20 or 30 minutes, getting up to move their bodies before returning to the screen.

Tips for Parents: Teach Kids Proper Ergonomics

  • Consider your computer space, not just your computer, when making your initial investment. Remember that while computers themselves become obsolete in a few years, an ergonomically correct chair will last a lifetime.
  • Choose a desk or work surface that is adjustable in height. This is especially important if children and adults share the computer station.
  • Teach children to sit "square in the chair," rather than in a twisted position.
  • Always have lights on in the room when using the computer. There should not be a big contrast between the lighting on the screen and in the area surrounding it.
  • Make sure the computer screen is free from glare (avoid placing computer near windows, or plan to draw shades to cut glare).
  • Make sure children learn to sit an arm's length away from the screen (12 to 14 inches).
  • Keep keyboard and mouse on the same level. The angle formed by shoulder, elbow, and wrist should be 90 degrees.
  • Teach children to look away from the screen at least once every 15 minutes. Look in another directions at least 20 feet away; this allows eye muscles to relax. Rapid blinking for a few seconds refreshes tear film and clears dust from the eye's surface.
  • Feet should touch the floor. Children should use a footrest (stack of books, footstool, or box).

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