Looking for your kids? If you have a computer, they’re likely to be found hunched over the keyboard and squinting at the screen while they surf the Internet, play games and Instant Message friends. The value of surfing, gaming and IMing is up for discussion, but the hunching and staring are bad habits with lifelong consequences. Already a quarter of elementary school age children and a third of high school students complain of recurring backaches. And experts worry that poor computer habits learned in childhood are almost certain to lead to future health problems ranging from repetitive stress injury and chronic back pain to headaches and eyestrain. Fortunately, what parents do now can make a big difference later. Experts recommend buying a full-fledged workstation for every computer, but that isn’t feasible for many families. Putting the processor and monitor on any available, stable surface can be OK — if you pay attention to the chair and the position of the keyboard and mouse. The ideal chair will be high enough so a child sitting up straight will have her forehead even with the top of the monitor and won’t have to tilt her head to see the screen. This is a challenge in households with kids of various sizes. The optimum solution is an ergonomic chair each child can adjust. A quick — and less expensive — fix is a cushion or folded blanket that raises each kid to the right height. If this leaves a child’s feet dangling, use a box as a footrest. Add a firm pillow or a rolled-up towel as a back support. The ideal keyboard position is just above a child’s lap so wrists can be relaxed. To achieve this, install an adjustable keyboard shelf, available at office supply stores or from websites like kensington.com. The alphabet portion of the keyboard should be centered in front of the monitor. If possible, tilt the keyboard slightly away from your child. (Don’t use the little legs that come with some keyboards. They actually slant the keyboard toward the body, causing additional wrist strain). For very young children, consider a miniature keyboard such as Little Fingers (www.datadesktech.com/desktop_lf_start.html). Some models come with a built-in trackball which maybe easier for little hands that can’t quite handle a mouse. If you use an ordinary mouse, be sure your child doesn’t have to reach to maneuver it. A swing-out platform that puts the mouse directly over the numerical keys on the keyboard is a great solution. Pay attention to lighting, too. A big contrast between the monitor screen and the surrounding area forces your child’s eyes to work unnecessarily hard. If there’s glare, use a mirror to figure out where it’s coming from. Lower shades on windows and move lamps as necessary. If it’s impossible to eliminate glare, consider a glare reduction screen like those approved by The American Optometrist Association (www.aoa.org/clincare/ophthalmic-glare.asp). What about other pricey ergonomic gear? Unfortunately, the term ergonomic isn’t regulated, so you can’t assume the claims for any particular product are based on research. One popular item — wrist rests made of gell — may actually cause problems because they make it more likely the wrist will twist. A smooth plastic wrist rest is preferable because your child’s wrist can slide over it. An accessory that will make a big difference during the school year is a document holder. Some attach to the monitor; others stand beside it. Either way, this inexpensive accessory holds reference materials right next to the monitor screen so necks swivel less and eyes don’t refocus as often.
None of this equipment matters if your child doesn’t learn good computer posture. Parents who remember being nagged to "sit up straight" may wonder if they really need to bug their kids about computer posture. The answer is "yes". Kids who are engrossed in something enjoyable are often unaware they are getting tired or their muscles are aching. Here are ideas that may inspire good habits even better than nagging.
—The 90 degree rule. When sitting at the computer, all the big joints in a child’s body — knees, hips and elbows — should form angles that are 90 degrees or more. Try taking a picture of your child and comparing it to the pictures at http://ergo.human.cornell.edu/cuweguideline.htm.
—Blink. People using computers blink less so their eyes get dry. Remind your child to blink by finding a big picture of an eyeball and taping it near the monitor.
—Look away. Staring at a screen for a long time makes it hard to focus when you glance away. (This is a problem with video games, too. To avoid eye strain, encourage your child to glance away from the screen every 10 minutes. If there’s no window in the room, put up an interesting poster about 20 feet away.
—Lean back. The computer screen should be an arm’s length away from your child. If he or she can’t see at that distance, enlarge the font — or schedule an eye exam.
—Take a break. Many kids lose track of time on the computer. Use software — or a kitchen timer — to remind them of whatever limits you’ve negotiated.