Is Sitting at a Computer Hurting Your Child?

I ache. Frequently. You’ll understand if you’ve ever had it. Back pain. More debilitating than you could have ever imagined….until you’re actually experiencing it. And then there’s the treatment and coping strategies, sometimes painful and difficult, other times seemingly goofy but necessary. I particularly remember the spectacle I was at the office for several months – scaring colleagues when they discovered me lying prostrate on the floor in an empty cubicle, hiding in small meeting rooms to do pelvic exercises and surely defying some corporate dress code with the fluorescent orange crocs I wore when standing at my computer.

But back pain is just the jumping off point for this story….where it led me is on a journey into the world of office “ergonomics.” Significant and increasing numbers of workplace injuries are related to poor workstation ergonomics – or, said another way, computer stations and desks that don’t properly fit the person using them. The field of ergonomics is full of technical terms and fancy equipment but, in the end, it’s really about the kind of common sense advice you used to get from your grandmother: “don’t slouch,” “sit up straight,” “keep your legs in front of your chair and your feet on the floor” – and its relevance unfortunately goes way beyond the world of factories and office workers.

Although a focus on “ergonomics for children” is relatively recent, we know that children are subject to many ergonomic stresses – from heavy backpacks to long periods of study or play in front of computers, often at desks that are not set up for their size. Data is currently limited on the immediate risks to kids for injuries like neck and back pain and carpal tunnel syndrome, but given that it takes several years for these types of injuries to appear, can we afford to take a “wait and see” attitude?

What can Parents, Schools and Child Safety Advocates Do?

Know what good looks like. Can you recognize healthy computer posture? Do you model these habits at home? Despite all the knowledge I gained at work, I realized I wasn’t following the advice at home because I didn’t have the same set-up and equipment. But a little education and some simple, inexpensive “fixes” can help get your family on the right path (see box below for tips on healthy computer use).

Teach your children. Mastering proper computer use will be of life-long value to any child in today’s high-tech knowledge economy. Children should know how to work safely at the computer and be aware of the risks of poor habits. However, many children learn better visually. In addition to discussing good posture, consider placing photos of good and bad computer ergonomics next to your home or school computers. Some sites provide examples you can print (see International Ergonomics Association / Cornell photos and comic), but you can also have your children be the models. They will find it fun to have their photos on the wall and might learn more by having to demonstrate both good and bad habits!

Monitor the situation. Kids aren’t as aware as adults of their body position, so you will need to give regular reminders about their posture. Also monitor their time on the computer – ensure they take breaks every 30-60 minutes. You can download free usage monitoring software that reminds kids when they need to take a break and suggests stretches to do – or you can always set a kitchen timer (click here for Cornell’s stretching exercises-scroll to #4).

Focus on schools. School districts worldwide are focused on increasing student access to computers; however, the majority of emphasis is on the quality of the computers, not the workstations. Check to see if your school or district has computer ergonomics guidelines and curricula. This is becoming a higher priority in education, as evidenced by last year’s ergonomics equipment and teaching resolutions passed by the California state-wide PTA organization. And just like at home, improvements don’t have to require lots of expensive equipment.

Healthy Computer Use for Kids

Start with looking at how well the computer station fits your child or students. Is the computer used for the whole family, or a range of different-sized kids? If your child is having to contend with a poorly fitting workstation, problems may be on the horizon. To ensure healthy computer use by children – by anyone – the most valuable thing to remember is the 90-degree rule: that key body elements should be at “right” or “90-degree” angles when sitting at a computer to maintain natural body alignment and not cause stress through over or under extension. A few useful guidelines:

Chair / Lower Body

  • Whatever your child sits on should position the keyboard at elbow height. Achieve this through an adjustable chair or by using a pillow to raise him up.
  • Make sure the feet are supported so that his knees are bent at roughly 90-degrees. His thighs shouldn’t slope up or down, or pressure is increased on the lower back. While there are specially-designed footrests on the market, you can also use a sturdy box or low child footstool. As I type this, my feet are resting on my Wii Fit board…at least this way it’s getting some use!
  • Also ensure support for his lower back via a pillow or rolled towel. This will help minimize slouching and support a 90-degree angle between his torso and thighs.

Keyboard and Mouse / Upper Body

  • Arms should be relaxed at the side with the elbows bent at 90-degrees and the keyboard should be positioned so that wrists are straight – not angled up or down.
  • A wrist rest may be useful for support. You can purchase one from any office supply store or fashion one with a towel (be sure it is sized to keep the child’s wrists straight).
  • The mouse should be placed near the keyboard to prevent strain from reaching.
  • If your child struggles with the size of the keyboard or mouse you may want to consider child-sized equipment (see “Little Fingers” keyboard). Also, some kids find trackballs easier to manipulate than a mouse.

Monitor / Head and Neck

  • The monitor should be placed so that your child’s head will be facing straight ahead and level – so the chin and neck are roughly at 90-degrees. You definitely don’t want him looking up or too far down.
  • Arrange lighting to avoid glare or bright spots on the monitor to prevent eye strain. To do this you may need to use overhead room lights and position desk lights away from the monitor.
  • Remind your kids to look away from time to time and blink…studies show that computer use results in decreased blinking. Make the computer a “zombie-free zone!”

About the Author

Audra is an experienced pharmaceutical marketing professional, aspiring writer, and mother of Elliott, a high-spirited twenty-year old. Frequently tired but never bored, she has a strong interest in public health fostered by numerous years implementing global oncology education programs as well as by her twenty-year crazy (wild? amazing?) adventure in parenting. She recently earned a Masters in Public Health to augment her expertise in health policy and health promotion. Audra is a founding member of the PedSafe Team


2 Responses to “Is Sitting at a Computer Hurting Your Child?”

  1. Wenche says:

    thanks for this fun, inspiraional and educational article. Its going to be while before my little one is taking up computers but when he does I will go back to your advice. Look forward to read more from you!!

  2. Matt says:

    I was brought up before computers were commonplace in children’s lives so it’s very important to raise awareness of this issue. Hopefully the future isn’t all backache and arthritis!

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