Children, screens and ergonomics
With screens now a huge feature of children’s lives – including in schools – is it time to be more serious about applying what we know about ergonomics to the youngest in society as well as adult workers?
In most workplaces, there is at least a basic understanding of the need to ensure that workstations are set up in such a way that protects workers’ health, allowing them to be comfortable and productive. For example, by adjusting the chair, desk, and screen to the correct heights for an individual.
It is of course a legal requirement for employers to conduct a Display Screen Equipment assessment for any employee using a screen on a regular basis. This ensures that they are not putting that person at risk. The same protection doesn’t apply to children in schools – or anywhere else.
The inevitable result is children working – and playing – on screens, both during the school day and at home, without the education or tools they need to do so in a way which is healthy for their bodies and minds.
We know excessive use of screens can lead to eye strain or headaches. This is often called Computer Vision Syndrome and some studies have even shown a link between screen time and higher risk and severity of myopia. At the same
time, a sedentary lifestyle, characterised by long periods spent sitting at a screen, can have a profound impact on a child’s physical and mental health, increasing the risk of childhood obesity.
While the conversation around managing screen time for children is well-developed, excessive use isn’t the only cause for concern; the way in which children are using screens – the postures they’re adopting, especially over prolonged periods – is another potential source of harm.
Without the lead coming from government and legislature, perhaps we in the ergonomics sector need to be banging this drum to help educate parents and teachers about the importance of healthy posture and screen use practices?
Managing the risks
Children are already suffering the consequences of sitting in awkward and unhealthy ways. I work with physiotherapists who are now regularly seeing children as young as eight, treating issues such as ‘tech neck’, as it’s been dubbed - pain and potential damage to the neck and upper spine linked to the prolonged use of smartphones, tablets, and other handheld devices.
It is the commonly adopted hunched posture, combined with the time spent on the device, which is the cause of this. The effects on a child's health and wellbeing can be significant, with pain impacting on mood and sleep quality. And if poor posture habits persist into adulthood, it can result in chronic musculoskeletal issues.
Encouraging pupils to maintain a comfortable posture while using digital devices, taking regular breaks, and adjusting screen brightness and font size can mitigate the risks. If they are using laptops for any length of time, a separate keyboard and mouse and a laptop riser to lift the screen to the correct height (top of the screen at eye level) are the bare minimum requirements.
In an IT suite especially, schools should provide adjustable chairs to better accommodate the wide variety in height and other anthropometrics of their pupils, all growing and developing at different rates. Educators might also consider incorporating ergonomics and posture education into their curriculum. Similarly, parents can ensure children have a healthy screen set up at home, while also setting screen time limits and encouraging more physical activity. Even as we support people to adopt better working postures, ultimately no posture is healthy if it is maintained for too long – the key is shifting posture and incorporating breaks and movement.
For children, this is even more essential; the current recommendation in the UK is that children should get an average of at least 60 minutes of moderate or vigorous intensity physical activity a day to help them develop movement skills, muscles, and bones. Many are not meeting this target.
Our digital devices make great servants, but bad masters. Proper management, more education about posture and ergonomics, and striking a balance with physical activity are vital if we want to harness their potential in education, without undermining children’s health and wellbeing in the process.