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Archive for Wednesday, January 10, 2001

Computers pose new threat

January 10, 2001

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Our typical student is 15 and new to high school, still uncomfortable but warming to classes and making friends. He's crazy about the new computer his parents bought him and his kid brother.

They installed it on an old desk in the living room, a public place easily supervised. There he sits all afternoon and often well into the evenings, on a chair left over from Grandma's dining room set, craning his head to read the screen in the dim light.

Already the computer is a boon to his schoolwork and nascent social life. On it he types English papers, researches history homework, organizes biology labs. He finds it easier to talk to classmates online than in person. Especially girls.

Three, four hours a day on the computer: Is that too much, his parents worry. They hear frightening stories about kids developing dangerous relationships on the Internet, wading into illicit territory. They don't see that a real threat is closer at hand.

It is, in fact, "in his hands." And his wrists, elbows, head and neck, in the way he sits, what he sits on, and how long he sits. Our student is a prime candidate for the muscular-skeletal damage that is a new and unwelcome byproduct of computer obsession.

Perhaps you've heard of repetitive-strain injury at work and thought it was just an adult problem (if a real problem at all). Think otherwise.

For children, "it is a time bomb ready to go off," says Margit Bleecker, director of the Center for Occupational and Environmental Neurology in Baltimore. Bleecker used to treat computer-related work injuries only in adults, then in college students and high school students. Recently two middle schoolers sought her help.

What's going on? RSI is afflicting teen-agers who've spent years now in front of the little screen. If their posture is poor, if chairs and desks are not well-aligned, muscles become strained and nerves damaged.

The common symptoms are burning wrists, aching fingers and forearms, and neck and back pain. In extreme cases, RSI victims become crippled unable to open a can or hold a book. Students are showing up for class unable to type or take notes.

Most workplaces are waking up to the need for proper seating, lighting and support (or OSHA is nudging them along). But the long arm of government doesn't stretch into the living room, nor should it.

Yet who's going to look after our typical student?

His computer shouldn't be plopped on an old desk, but fitted on an adjustable table. He needs sufficient lighting and a chair with good support, not just Grandma's castoff. Everything should be sized differently for his 5-inches-shorter brother. And they both need to take breaks from the computer every 20 minutes.

In a Cornell University study of 11 elementary schools, researchers found that at least 40 percent of the children were at risk of serious injury. Most schools can barely afford to run computer labs; they're going to spend precious dollars on ergonomic chairs?

Which is why ErgoTeacher. com, a division of a California company that sells ergonomic furniture, is trying to persuade corporations to help schools buy adjustable workstations and hand-friendly mouses along with monitors and modems.

Nice move, but this is not a problem to be solved simply by acquiring expensive equipment.

We're expecting our children at ever-earlier ages to be taught, nurtured and amused by symbols on a static screen. Their bodies are meant to do otherwise, and so are their minds.

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