Any adult who spends much time with technology knows that it can cause physical strains ranging from headaches to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Children who use computers, laptops, mobile devices and video games can also be vulnerable to these problems both because their bodies are developing and because they may not notice the twinges that signal overuse. Fortunately, parents can take relatively simple steps that will protect kids from the physical wear and tear associated with technology. Helping children establish good tech habits now makes it less likely that they will have problems later. Here are things to consider:
Hands. Repetitive stress injuries occur when the same motion is repeated over and over, something that’s hard to avoid when playing video games or using a cellphone. Encourage your child to develop a light, relaxed touch to minimize stress on fingers. To prevent wrist strain, rest devices on a pillow and position keyboards at elbow height. Arms should hang loosely at the sides rather than being outstretched.
Back. You may feel self-conscious about telling your child to “sit up straight,” but slumping over a handheld device creates strain on a child’s back and neck. Whenever possible, encourage your child to do extended projects such as homework or even lengthy gaming sessions at a work station that is designed to encourage “neutral” posture. Feet should rest on the floor (or on a box for younger children). The chair should provide support for the lower back (a rolled up towel may help). Screens should be at eye level (consider using a portable keyboards for laptops and tablets). Consider adding an inexpensive keyboard to a laptop or tablet so the monitor can be propped at eye level and your child won’t have to hunch over her work.
Eyes. Computer Vision Syndrome won’t necessarily cause long-term damage to your child’s eyes but it can result in fatigue, blurry vision and headaches. Show your child how to increase font size so devices can be held comfortably about 20 inches from the face. Reduce glare by adjusting the position of screens and, if necessary, adding an anti-glare filter. Clean screens and, for that matter, eye glasses by wiping them gently with a soft, damp cloth. Because people in front of screens blink less often, their eyes may get dry and irritated. Encourage your child to look away every five or ten minutes and focus on something else.
Ears. One in five American teens already has hearing loss caused by extended exposure to sound—especially music—that is too loud. Set the volume for devices that have headphones and tell young children that they need your permission to make it any louder. Instead of earbuds, get your child earphones that cover the ear so there’s less need to increase volume to block out environmental sound. To make children more aware of sound levels, try installing an app like Sound Meter for Apple products or Sound Level for Android.
Brain. Even though the research is inconclusive, many experts recommend that parents err on the side of caution when exposing children to the electromagnetic waves created by mobile devices. Dr. Devra Davis, author of Disconnect: The Truth About Cellphone Radiation urges parents to discourage young children from using cellphones for any but very short conversations. Older children should get in the habit of using the speaker phone or a headset. Some kids will find it amusing to use an inexpensive retro handset, readily available at sites like Amazon.
Most cellphone manufacturers recommend that phones not be pressed against the side of the head. Check the manual to find the ideal distance from phone to ear. To find out how much radiation a particular phone routinely emits, check its SARS level at https://www.sarchecker.com/. You may want to adopt other precautions to limit your child’s exposure to unnecessary radiation: Turn off WIFI whenever it’s not in use or set the phone to airplane mode so it doesn’t emit a wireless signal. Avoid using the phone in a moving vehicle or when reception is poor because the phone will emit more radiation in its effort to find a relay antenna. Keep phones and tablets out of the bedroom when your child is sleeping. If your child (or for that matter, you) use your cellphone a lot, consider investing in a case that redirects radiation like the available from Pongresearch.com.
The best way to protect your child from the health issues associated with using technology is to encourage breaks—lots of them. Try installing a timer app or use an old-fashioned kitchen timer. Set it for 20 to 30 minutes. When the timer goes off, have everyone stop what they are doing and MOVE for at least five minutes. You may also want to help your child become aware of the aches and pains that indicate overuse. Teach your child simple stress reduction exercises like shoulder rolls and yoga stretches like downward dog. Have a squishy ball available for soothing cramped hand muscles.
All of this advice is, of course, good for adults as well as kids. In the end, the very best way to get your kids to develop healthy habits with technology may be adopting them for yourself.