Experts warn bad habits learned young will harm

Pain: Youngsters need to learn safe techniques or they could suffer the hand injuries adults do.

April 19, 1999|By Marilyn Adams | Marilyn Adams,Knight Ridder/Tribune

MIAMI -- As do a lot of computer users, Justin Hayes spends hours pounding the keyboard or gripping the mouse to finish assignments on time. And as do a lot of computer users, when he's been at it too long, his wrists and hands ache.

Unlike most computer users with such aches and pains, Justin's just 17 years old. The high school senior from the Miami suburb of Kendall began using computers before he began first grade.

"If I have a paper to do, I'll do one to three hours of research on the Net, then a couple of hours of writing," he says. "If I'm typing for a long time, in an hour or two, I'll feel it in my wrists and hands."

Justin is lucky. His mother, Sherri Hayes, director of the Division of Physical Therapy at the University of Miami School of Medicine, has taught him to take breaks, watch his posture, stretch, and massage tendons and muscles when they hurt.

But complaints from young people like Justin are beginning to alarm parents, physical therapists and ergonomists. As children at younger and younger ages spend more and more time at computers for school and fun, some experts fear a wave of aches and injuries like those that afflict hundreds of thousands of adults in computer-intensive jobs.

At the very least, computer-savvy youngsters -- typing and clicking away for hours at ill-fitting workstations -- could develop posture problems and bad work habits that come back when they're older, experts say.

"We, as adults, are not used to dealing with the lifestyle that kids have now -- the intensity of computers in schools and homes," says Dr. Rose Rine, director of pediatric physical therapy services and an assistant professor at the University of Miami School of Medicine. "At home, kids are working for hours at a workstation set up for an adult. They're inside, not doing physical activity, but playing Nintendo and computer games. They're straining their eyes, staring for hours at the monitor, a flickering light source. They have lousy posture. They're coming in [to the clinic] with forward [bent-over] heads you don't normally see until the nursing home."

She worries about the long-term effects of computer eyestrain and poor posture, of little hands working at keyboards that are too high and too big and young necks craning to see towering monitors.

"When that 7-year-old is 22, he'll have chronic neck and back pain," says Rine. "Once you get used to sitting a certain way, you sit that way forever."

Even in school, where children are introduced to computers in kindergarten or earlier, workstations aren't necessarily set up any better for the young users, warns psychologist and author Jane M. Healy, who observed youngsters at computers in schools around the country for her new book, "Failure to Connect" (Simon & Schuster, $24.95).

"I was just horrified by what I saw," she says from her home in Colorado. "I saw children facing monitors next to windows, where there was glare. They were hunched over laptops in godawful positions. They were seated facing the backs of older machines, where they could be exposed to radiation."

The issues of computer safety are hardly new. For more than a decade, workers, medical professionals and the government have accumulated knowledge about the potential dangers of improper and excessive computer use. Every year, nearly 650,000 adults in jobs requiring repetitive motions -- including intensive keyboard and mouse work -- suffer painful health problems caused by repetitive stress on the body, according to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Repetitive stress injuries -- to backs and necks, hands and arms -- have become the nation's top workplace malady, costing employers billions every year, OSHA says.

After a sweeping National Academy of Sciences report last year on repetitive motion injuries in the workplace, OSHA called last month for a national ergonomic standard to make the workplace safer.

But in the headlong rush to push children onto the Internet and better prepare them for school and work needs, little research or attention has been focused on whether they may be vulnerable to repetitive stress injuries, or on how to make their workstations safe.

The first scientific study involving children and computers was published in the January issue of Journal of Research on Computing in Education. In it, Cornell University researchers found that middle-school children worked in healthier positions when given adjustable trays to hold the keyboard and mouse.

In another Cornell study, to be published in the May issue of the journal Computers in the Schools, researchers say they found a "striking misfit" between children and their computer workstations at 11 elementary schools. At every workstation observed, keyboards and monitors were too high, forcing pupils to crane necks, bend wrists and hunch shoulders.

Robin Gillespie, an ergonomist with New York University and Hunter College, is about to launch a study in New York City schools.

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