Ergonomics for Kids

Computer technology is an integral part of life in this country, especially for children. Yet serious efforts to prevent computer-related injuries have largely been limited to the workplace.

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are the scourge of the computerized workplace. Workers can develop chronic pain if their workstations are set up without proper attention to ergonomics. A small change, such as re-positioning the screen or keyboard, or using an adjustable chair, can often eliminate the problem.

MSDs are a family of painful disorders affecting tendons, muscles, nerves and joints in the neck, upper and lower back, chest, shoulders, arms and hands. They include repetitive strain injuries (RSIs) which may take years to develop. Recovery can be difficult and may even require surgery in extreme cases.

Caused by work that is repetitive or requires awkward postures, these disorders account for a very high proportion of Workers’ Compensation claims. Disability costs have motivated employers to minimize the risks. As a minimum, workstations are designed to meet ergonomic standards and frequent breaks are recommended.

It is not rare for children to play computer games or surf the Net for hours at a time with hardly a break. Young children crane their necks to view monitors perched on old-style computers. “One size fits all” placement of equipment forces children’s elbows and wrists into awkward angles. Such practices would not be tolerated in a workplace setting.

Is the ergonomics issue a ticking time bomb for the health of the computer generation?

Injuries to the spine and soft tissue are harder to track than traumatic injuries such as broken bones. This may explain in part why statistics on RSIs in children are generally lacking. Nor is there much research on injuries and conditions specifically caused by improper computer use. (Certain sports, or even playing a musical instrument, may also lead to RSIs.) Nonetheless, evidence is emerging that children are not immune to the physical problems that can result from improper use of computer equipment.

Anecdotally, doctors and physiotherapists are seeing more school age children with pain symptomatic of prolonged computer use at workstations that do not fit. The seriousness of computer-related injuries in adults raises serious questions about their effects on children.

  • As adults, will they suffer chronic pain? MSDs can take years to develop; latent problems could show up later in life. In addition, back, neck and shoulder pain at a young age may be a predictor of similar pain in adulthood.
  • Will their eyesight be damaged? Looking at the screen for hours is very stressful for the child’s vision system and can lead to myopia at a young age. Eye problems must be addressed early to prevent damage.
  • Is there an impact on bone development? Children’s bones grow and calcify. In the late teens, bone density reaches its peak. The effects of sustained poor body position (and in some cases, computer use replacing physical exercise) are not known.

Home and School

Proper set-up and work habits are equally important at home and at school. Not only teachers but also parents must put a high priority on preventing computer-related injuries.

The push to have computers in schools has by and large ignored the physical needs of growing children. Often, the equipment is placed on ordinary desks with standard plastic chairs, for use by children of all sizes. Funding for the equipment is not matched with funding for suitable workstations.

Moreover, the time spent on computers in school pales in comparison with that outside the classroom. In many homes, workstations are poorly suited to children’s needs. Ubiquitous handheld electronic devices further complicate the issue. Young people play games, send and receive messages, and surf the Net for long periods at a time non-stop, oblivious to posture or physical discomfort.

The Basics

More study is needed on how children physically interact with computers and the effects of that interaction. Hardware and software are evolving, along with the ways people use them. For now, the Canada Safety Council recommends applying what is known about adult ergonomics to children.

For a conventional workstation, start with proper placement of the equipment, and furniture that promotes good posture and proper hand position:

  • The keyboard and mouse should be directly under the fingers when elbows are bent to about 90 degrees with upper arms relaxed. Make sure the child’s wrists stay straight when keying or mousing, and do not bend up, down or to the side; this helps prevent carpal tunnel syndrome. The mouse should be right next to the keyboard so it’s easy to reach. For small hands, invest in a kid-sized mouse and keyboard.
  • Children should not need to bend their neck back to look at the screen. Align the top of the monitor screen with the child’s forehead so it is below eye level, directly in front, not off to the side. To minimize strain on the eyes make sure children sit about an arm’s length from the screen. Make sure the screen is free from glare, and adjust the brightness and text size for comfort.

If the workstation serves users of different sizes, an adjustable keyboard tray and pneumatic chair can help assure comfort for all. If, on the other hand, workstation furniture is not adjustable, choose a chair that places the child at the proper height in relation to the equipment. If that means a higher chair, provide a footrest to support the feet and a pillow to support the back.

Active breaks and frequent changes of position increase circulation and let the eyes relax. Parents must insist that children who use the computer for an hour or more at a time should move around often and get up every half-hour or so. They should also arrange for regular eye examinations, and encourage recreational exercise to counterbalance all the sitting.