The physical act of being a child has changed drastically in recent years. Not too long ago, much of a child's physical activity during the day involved moving the legs as he ran or rode a bike and the arms as she threw a ball or climbed a tree. Of course children still do this -- but not nearly as much as they used to, especially if they live in cities.
Now, many children spend much more time moving their right index finger up and down in micro-movements as they click on a mouse or their middle finger as they press the arrows on the keyboard to shoot off a missile to knock that enemy space ship out of cyber-space.
Take time to observe your children at the computer. Are they sitting up straight? Or are they slumped over and tense with excitement in anticipation of that next round of fire or that next turn at pinball?
Those of us who are not physical or occupational therapists may not realize the tremendous importance these movements, actions and postures have and will have for our children. Most of us only began using computers as adults. And how many of us now suffer from some kind of computer-related syndrome such as carpal tunnel or CTD, cumulative trauma disorder?
Our children are beginning their time at the computer at younger and younger ages. Will we see an epidemic of computer-related physical ailments when this generation reaches their 20's and 30's?
RULES FOR HEALTHY COMPUTER USE
In order to prevent pressure of various kinds on young, growing bodies, take this advice from Ruthie Poremba, OTR, MA, an occupational therapist who trained at McGill University.
- The computer screen needs to be directly in front of the child's eyes -- not off to the side -- in order to minimize neck strain.
- Shoulders should be relaxed and elbows should be at the sides of the body. To keep kids from raising and tensing their shoulders, make sure that the mouse and keyboard are at the appropriate height (e.g. at elbow level with arms parallel to floor) for their use. Children shouldn't have to reach forward to use the mouse.
- In most cases, the child is sitting on a chair that is too big for him. Make sure that his legs have support. You can use a footstool under the desk or even an old telephone directory. It's also important that his back is supported. Try putting a small pillow between the child's lower back and the back of the chair.
- It's very important to make sure that your child takes frequent breaks, stretches his body, changes positions and does relaxation exercises. (This can be as simple as closing the eyes and taking three deep, slow breaths.) At least make sure they go to the kitchen for a drink or to the bathroom every half hour or so.
- To prevent eyestrain, and to prevent your child from having to get closer to the screen in order to see well, make sure you have good lighting in the computer area.
LIMIT COMPUTER TIME
This may not be a popular thing to say, but the best way to ensure that your child's health is not affected by time at the computer is to limit that time. Very young children should not be sitting at the computer at all. It's hard to take away something that is so intriguing, and that keeps kids so entertained and out of our hair. But just as conscientious parents limit television watching, we must do the same for computers.
If your children watch television and play at the computer, they are doubling the time they are sitting still every day instead of moving and exercising their growing bodies. All the more reason to give some serious thought to time limits.
Poremba recommends limiting children to not more than two one-hour periods a day at the computer.
To download a free screen-saver with tips on appropriate computer use, go to the consumer section of http://www.aota.org, the web site of the American Occupational Therapy Association.
Copyright Ruth Mason, 2000