The odds are pretty good that the computer station your child is huddled over--at home, school or the library--was never intended for a kid-sized body.
With the new school year comes increased use of computers for homework. But bad posture at the keyboard and screen can result in sore wrists, eye fatigue, neck strain and even back pain. A couple of hours of computer games on top of that can compound the problem, ergonomists say.
And don't assume that correct computer posture is drummed into kids at school. Many elementary school students sit at the computer for about an hour or so a week. Most schools try to provide special computer furniture--low tables and chairs, but rarely are they fully adjustable, so many students still work with their arms, legs and heads in potentially harmful positions.
Still, it is at home where repetitive stress injuries are more likely to occur and where workstation modifications should be made, say computer and ergonomic experts.
"Kids spend such a short time with computers at school," said Ron Schlenker, a Mission Viejo-based ergonomic consultant. "Most ergonomic problems crop up after three to six hours at the computer."
Dennis Ankrum, director of human factor research at Nova Solutions, a classroom furniture firm in Austin, Texas, said preliminary results from an international survey of children's computer use indicates that kids are experiencing visual and postural problems.
"That does not happen in 40 minutes a week," he said.
Ankrum said he fears problems will only escalate if left unaddressed.
"It's a repeat of the 1980s, when computers landed on desks in offices," he said. "Few are paying any attention to the possible adverse health outcomes. Only this time, it's schools [and homes] and kids."
Neal Taslitz, a Chicago lawyer and executive director of the National Assn. for Repetitive Stress Injury, points out that carpal canals in a child's wrist are narrower than in an adult's, making them more susceptible to nerve damage from repetitive typing.
"The size of [keyboard] keys alone are not made for children," Taslitz said. "Kids aren't learning right posture and not learning the subtle signs of problems."
And with no formal movement to establish ergonomic standards for children's computer use, Taslitz said, it is up to parents to be alert to RSI dangers.
A top concern is how close children's eyes are to the monitor. Vicki Napper, who teaches educational technology at Weber State University in Utah, has studied how children use computers.
"Watch how kids interact. They get very close to the computer--they want to touch inside it. But they can't, so they get as close as they can, which breaks the No. 1 ergonomic rule: getting too close," she said. "I suspect the younger generation is getting into eyeglasses much earlier."
Above all, Napper said, children are now developing computer habits that will stay with them into adulthood. This, combined with the fact that kids use furniture designed for grown-ups, lays the groundwork for an unhealthful relationship with technology.
"I did a random study of [college] students who use computers, and what I found was that out of 30 students, 26 said they were experiencing pain. This was a very high number for a random sample," Napper said.
"I asked myself, 'Why are these students sitting here doing something that's causing them constant pain?' I believe it's because as a society we've come to believe we're inferior to computers--that if there's a problem, it's our fault, not the computer's.
"We never say, 'There must be something wrong with the hardware.' The first thing we say is, 'There is something wrong with me.' Those habits are now starting at a young age."
Children's attraction to interactive software means heavy use of the mouse, and this can lead to tendinitis or muscle atrophy in the arm, because only a few of the muscles are needed to operate it, Napper said.
Another hazard is "Game Boy thumb" (also known as Nintendo thumb or numb thumb), an injury resulting from habitual use of push-button controllers on computer and video games.
Napper's solution: exercise, even during a computer project.
"It's OK to stand up. Sitting can be a bad thing, because kids tend to sit on their knees, or their legs are dangling. If their legs aren't on the ground, the circulation can get cut off. I'd rather have them moving around. The more they move, the better. They also need to exercise, use all their muscles."
Napper said nearly all computer desks designed for children are multiple-site workstations for use in schools. But even they aren't fully adjustable to suit the range of body sizes. So for home use, parents need to modify their workstation for the youngest and smallest users.
"Whenever you have a workstation used by more than one person, the amount of adjustability has to increase accordingly," she said. "This is the only way good habits can be learned."
Ergonomists give the following tips for children who use their parents' computer:
* Chair height is important. The child should sit high enough so that the angle of the elbow is 90 degrees in relation to the forearms when typing or using the mouse. If the chair is not adjustable, use cushions.
* The top of the monitor should be at the height of the child's forehead.
* To help forestall myopia, the monitor should be at least 2 feet from the child's eyes. Ankrum recommends 2 1/2 feet. In word-processing programs, use large font sizes.
* Use a footstool to prevent feet from dangling.
* Slouching, common with kids, is bad. Thighs should be positioned 90 to 100 degrees relative to the trunk.
* The child should not have to reach far to use the mouse or keyboard.
* Children should take rest breaks often and avoid overusing the mouse or joystick.
* RSI symptoms include numbness, tingling and pain. Treatment varies depending on the problem; see a doctor.
Adjusted angle of monitor
Relaxed neck and shoulders
Added shelf for keyboard and mouse
Support for legs and feet
Tightened neck and shoulders
Eyes too close and angle too high
Unnatural wrist angle
Curved lower back