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Too Many Hours at the Computer?
Q: My son spends four to six hours a day working at his computer at home. If we include school time, the total comes to nearly eight or nine hours a day. My husband and I are starting to worry that this could somehow be harmful to him. Are there dangers to this much computer use?
A: Potential problems have been noted for the many children who do spend hours at school and at home in front of a computer. There are complaints of eye discomfort following the use of computers for long periods, which causes eye strain, but tends to get better with rest. Levels of radiation exposure from the display monitor are well below those required to produce eye damage, even after prolonged exposure.
It is also possible that repeated overuse of a muscle group could cause muscle strain and pain. This happens mostly because children learn unhealthy computer habits. They tend to use adult-size workstations and furniture, and then develop awkward positions to compensate. Kids may dangle their legs from the chair, sit with their backs hunched over, lift their chins toward the monitor (usually above eye-level), and reach up to click the mouse. These habits, if not corrected, can lead to troubling symptoms and possible disability. We can help by encouraging good posture with feet planted comfortably on the floor (or put something on the floor under the feet), keeping the mouse at elbow height, and lowering the monitor to eye level. A height-adjustable keyboard may be a relatively inexpensive answer. You might even include instructions on your screensaver to remind your child of good work habits.
In addition, computer use seems to play a role in the trend of increasing obesity in children. Use of television, video games, and computer games leads to less physical activity. Snacking also tends to occur more frequently in children who remain in front of computer or TV screens. Besides encouraging more regular physical activity, limiting screen time to a certain number of after-school hours per day or only for homework is a good place to start.
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Henry Bernstein, M.D., is currently the associate chief of the Division of General Pediatrics and director of Primary Care at Children's Hospital, Boston. He also has an academic appointment at Harvard Medical School.