How Computers Affect Your Child's Health

Barbara Anan Kogan

Today’s 38.5 million kids in this country between the ages of 2 and 18 are part of the digital generation at home, day- and child-care centers, and in schools. They play computer games for at least 20 minutes daily and spend 2.5 or more hours in front of another screen–the television. Kids play computer games at friends’ and relatives’ houses and in their own houses. Their computer playmates include friends, siblings, parents, and child-care providers. Visiting with grandparents has become a computer event too, as the senior generation is becoming computer-literate almost as fast as the digital generation.

The digital generation learns how to spell words by using spell check on the computer. Even the board game of Scrabble is now available in a computerized version, as are other board games and TV game shows. Every sport imaginable can be played by computer. For preschoolers and grades K-3, there are a series of educational toys and games.

Effects on Lifestyle and Health
When children spend hours playing computer games in solitude, they spend less time socializing with their family and peers. This solitude overrides development of other activities and skills and potentially creates difficulties getting along and socializing later in the workplace.

A child makes more than 4,000 eye movements in just one hour while playing computer games. Frequently they have difficulty tracking the movement in horizontal, vertical, and oblique directions. Playing computer games and staring at the computer screen for as little as 20 minutes causes the visual system to become locked into focus at the screen’s distance. When a child tries to refocus in the distance, it is blurry.

Blinking is also reduced when a kid stares at a computer screen while playing computer games. Normally blinking occurs 15 times per minute and is a natural way of lubricating our eyes. Kids as young as 8 years old wear contact lenses, and reduced blinking causes their eyes to dry out and become irritated. Reduced blinking also causes redness with or without contact lenses.

Repetitive motion from typing at a computer keyboard and using a mouse can cause carpal tunnel syndrome. Awkward postures create neck and back problems in children, just as with adults. These problems can interfere with a child’s sleep, performance in school, and the discomfort can create negative attitudes.

Kids often eat junk foods high in fats, sugars, and carbohydrates while playing computer games. Combined with a lack of physical activity, this is a contributing factor to the surge in obese children. This obesity adds to the rise of diabetes at increasingly younger ages.

Today’s kids can retreat to their own room, which is media-complete with a computer, TV, and often a high-tech audio system. These activities encourage stationary positions, often with minimal physical exertion, such as clicking a computer mouse or a remote control, for many hours daily.

Solutions for Balance
Playing a musical instrument provides an alternative physical activity in which kids also use their hands and eyes and interact with other children. Kids tap their feet and often move the whole body while learning music’s rhythm and timing. A musical keyboard stimulates close and large stretching hand movements as with a computer keyboard. String and woodwind instruments provide more fine muscle development.

Many kids become inspired to play instruments in the school orchestra or marching band. An additional benefit is the enrichment from the socialization and creativity. If other family members play instruments, music brings a family together.

Singing, from the CDs or cassettes, to participating in school and church choirs, provides a balance of their entire mind and body.

“It’s great to come here, and I’m seeing things I don’t see in school or when I’m playing games on my computer” is a common phrase heard by kids who are participating in Outdoor Education. Here children have an opportunity to learn about nature. A good bird book and a pair of binoculars teach children about colors, shapes, and sizes; all the types of seeds, nuts, and berries birds eat; the differences in their songs; how they move on the ground and fly; and whether they are water or land birds.

Walking in the outdoors teaches children about trees, plants, and flowers. Naturalists and many nature or outdoor-oriented retail stores provide organized walking tours for the whole family to enjoy, while expanding their world from playing the games on a computer at an arm’s length away.

It is fun for children to watch their own vegetable, flower, or herb garden grow, whether it is a portion of the back or front yard or indoors on a windowsill. Developing this relationship with nature requires care and nurturing while providing physical activity with a mind-body connection.

Year-round gardening can become part of a kid’s knowledge about food preparation. It can be fun for children to put some berries, nuts, or to chop herbs in their food. This can be done on their own–even as early as 7 or 8 years old–or with siblings, parents, grandparents, and child-care providers. It can include anything from side dishes to main courses to snack foods, and the creative talents used from maintaining a garden can complement the creative talents of food preparation and presentation at the table. This is also a way to reduce and overcome obesity.

Children should also be encouraged to read books in their original printed format instead of e-books. Try encouraging your child to write a story about what happened in school. Ask your digital generation child to draw a picture, copying one, or creating an original.

Children who spend as little as 15 minutes doing stretching exercises of the arms, shoulders, legs, neck, and back relieve computer-induced stress on the body’s muscles. Exercise aids in food digestion and in relieving depression.

Easing Computer Stress on the Body and Mind
A few easy adjustments in the initial setup of your child’s computer can be accomplished with a minimal amount of time or cost, and have long-term stress-relieving effects on the body and mind. The monitor should be aimed approximately 20 degrees below eye level to simulate a more natural reading position and placed at arm’s length away from the child’s view. A glare screen placed over the monitor will make viewing easier on the eyes. The screen should be dusted daily.

There are a number of ergonomically designed keyboards that can minimize sore wrists. Since keyboard and mouse comfort are individual, your child can often help in making the best selection of both.

Feet should be placed flat on the floor, and your child should be seated erect in a lumbar-supported chair that is at a comfortable height. This avoids back, neck, and shoulder pain. Accessory lighting should be less than three times brighter than the screen, non-glare-producing, and on the left side. Glare and shadows can be reduced by simply closing drapes, curtains, or blinds.

A stress-relieving pair of computer glasses makes a significant difference in performance, concentration, and clarity and avoids afterimages during and after computer game playing. Contact lens wearers use computer glasses over their contacts. The prescription is designed to provide clear focus at the keyboard, the monitor, and the desk, and for distances of up to approximately four feet away. They should be kept at the computer work station, and if there are multiple work stations, such as at home and at school, a pair should be kept at each location.

These specially designed prescriptions are extremely beneficial in preventing the onset and progression of nearsightedness. Following the 20/20 rule, in which your child takes a 20-second visual break after 20 minutes of staring at the computer monitor, prevents the visual system from “locking up.”

Physical breaks provide keyboard relief. Start by gently rotating both hands in an extended-arm position, making large circles 10 times each clockwise and counterclockwise in the air. When the arms are extended, clench both fists and hold for five seconds. Then spread the fingers as far apart as possible and hold for five seconds. Repeat these hand clenches 10 times. Last, lift the shoulders as high as possible, hold for five seconds, and then release. After five repetitions, lift the shoulders and rotate five times in a circular direction.

Tossing a beach-size ball back and forth 10 times develops eye-hand coordination for the very young computer game player.

Today’s computer games have replaced their predecessors, Mr. Potato Head, jacks, and reading. Parents from the 1950s and 1960s were challenged to balance a child’s lifestyle, health, and development against numerous hours staring at the television screen. Today’s parents face a double challenge with balancing the TV and computer monitor screens.

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