Healthy Ergonomics: Are your kids experiencing pain?

I recently ran a healthy ergonomics programme (e-kids health) through one of the local primary schools where I talked not only to the teachers and the K to 6 children, but importantly also the parents.

One of the questions I put to each of the 3 to 6 classes that I spoke to, was for anyone who had experienced pain while using various devices (i.e. computer/tablet/game boys/smart phones) to put their hand up. And while I should not have been surprised that almost half of the children in each of the classes put up their hand, I was. It brought home to me the reality of what the research has been saying.

Research from Australia and around the world is indicating that between 36% and 60% of children (dependent on age and device being used) experience pain when using computers and other devices. Interestingly the symptoms tend to mimic those that adults most often complain of. However, in many cases the reasons for the pain is quite different to that of an adult, as children’s musculoskeletal systems are immature and still growing.

Something for parents to be aware of, but not alarmed by, is that some of these issues can affect a child’s long-term wellbeing as well as their current health and ability to learn. One such example is children who experience back tend to be more tired and less happy generally, and are more likely to experience back pain as young adults. Not a position any parent would want their child to be in.

While there has been no discussion in the press around the ergonomic issues our children are facing, there has been a fair amount of talk about the effects that sitting is having on us, highlighting the fact that sitting is as big a risk factor to our long-term health as smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity are.

And it would be naive to think that our children are not being affected too. So while it is important to encourage our children to get up and be active, we also need to address their posture when using devices, which are increasingly a part of their daily lives. And we need to equip our children with the necessary tools to develop good habits around technology from the start.

I have been asked why it is that I have started with a K to 6 focus, and not yrs 7-12 in the e-kids health programme. The simple answer is that children’s long-term postural habits are forming in those early years of school. And while teachers do their best to encourage good sitting habits in the classroom, if those good habits are not reinforced at home, it is a loosing battle.

All too often children will slump into the easy to maintain “C” shape back, sitting engrossed in that position for long periods of time. Most household furniture that our children use is adult size and does not offer them the support to maintain an upright posture, which can be part of the problem. Poor postural and core muscle strength can also be an issue. But regardless of the cause, it is the effects that can affect them for life.

So what can we as parents do?

  1. Lead by example. Make sure if you are sitting using computers or other devices that you maintain an upright posture, avoiding slumping. And get up often.
  2. Talk to your children and educate them about good postural habits. Ask them if they are experiencing any pain related to the use of devices. (Remembering that younger kids are unlikely to recognize it as pain, while the older ones can.)
  3. If the furniture is adult sized and too big, place cushions behind their backs so that they can sit back and relax into the back of the chair rather than slumping forward. Alternatively there are chairs and desks available that can “grow” with your child. Petite adults may even find these items a good fit for them too.
  4. Place a footstool under their feet to better support them.
  5. Ideally their hands should be at or below elbow height when keying, with elbows close to their side.
  6. The top of the monitor no higher than their eye height.
  7. Provide a small mouse and keyboard to better fit a child’s small hand.
  8. Lay down basic rules from the start to develop those good habits; e.g. No device may be used unless they are sitting properly. And standing/activity breaks have to be taken every 20 minutes.
  9. Ask your local school what they are doing to address the issue, and reinforce any school initiatives at home.
  10. Seek medical advice if you have any concerns.

For further information for parents or schools on the e-kids health ergonomics programme, or for general ergonomic advice, contact me on [email protected] or 0414 790 870.

When not involved in child-related activities with her two primary school daughters, Yvonne runs a Killara-based Ergonomic and Health & Safety Consultancy where she combines her Physiotherapy skills with post graduate health and safety knowledge. Yvonne is becoming increasingly concerned about children's poor habits around the use of technology, and has developed a school ergonomic programme for K to 6 to educate the community and start addressing the issues.