Are techno-savvy kids playing it safe?

15 January 2017

With an increase in head and neck pain and posture issues coinciding with the rise in use of tablet devices, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health have found that the flexible use of such technology means that there is concern for the development of neck and shoulder discomfort.

Youngsters are increasingly techno savvy. Many are well versed with working a computer, tablet or android phone, and love the interactive nature of games and apps.

The age at which children get acquainted with technology has fallen. Gone are the days when video games and technology was purely the domain of teenagers. According to Apple, they sold over 22.9m iPads in 2012 alone and tablet devices are a common accessory in modern life. In fact, a recent survey of over 1,000 parents, revealed phones and tablets are being widely used at home, even by under-fives, toddlers and babies. 

The survey showed that over half of parents allow their babies to play with their phone or tablet, and one in seven admitted they let their children use their gadgets for four hours or more per day. 

What are the health concerns?

The technology may be great, but could constant use have a detrimental impact on children? Some studies suggest it could. A recent study presented at the European League Against Rheumatism conference in London reports children experiencing arthritis and joint issues, such as the so-called ‘texters thumb’ and ‘Gameboy back’ problems from sitting in the same playing position for hours, plus behavioural issues from being addicted to tablet devices.

‘We know that repetitive strain injuries can occur when you do the same movements for long periods of time. This is clearly a risk for constant use of computer games and digital devices,’ explains GP, Dr Emma-Jane Down.

‘The lack of other physical exercise performed by children playing these games excessively could lead to obesity and poor health. And overuse of these games could leave a child drained from the constant interaction.’

Could iPads and tablet devices have other effects?

iPad and tablet technology is still new, so scientific evidence or research available on the possible long-term effects on children is limited. 

‘A child’s brain is developing fast, especially when they’re young. Could overuse of these devices prevent the brain from developing correctly?’ questions Dr Down.

‘Children using iPads have often been described to ‘zone out’. Is this from intense concentration or not? iPads are often held very close to the child’s face and eyes, which could contribute to them blocking out the rest of the world whilst using it intensely,’ she comments.

What about the benefits of games and tablets?

Despite the downsides, consoles and tablet devices do offer some benefits. 

‘A tablet can be educational, and is different from watching TV or playing computer games for long periods. The educational element is very useful to help engage children in subjects they might normally have little interest in,’ comments Dr Down.

A University of Kansas study found using an iPad provided benefits for children with cortical visual impairment (CVI), a severe neurological disorder. Children who weren’t normally able to look at people or respond to objects engaged with the iPad, thanks to its interactivity, colour and sound.

However, not all apps and games are suitable for children. Look for age-appropriate games and apps, plus options with educational elements, such as games to encourage fun ways of developing numeracy or literacy skills. 

How much play is enough?

The key to successful use of technology with children is moderation. 

‘Parents need to think carefully about how many breaks their child has. Children watching TV tend to look away from the screen frequently, but iPad devices have been observed to lock the child into the screen in a more intense way,’ suggests Dr Down.

‘Opticians recommend you look into the distance every 20 to 30 minutes when using a computer screen to help rest your eye muscles.’

Consider setting time limits on technology use, or certain times of the day when they can be used, and ensure your child gets plenty of opportunities to engage in healthy activities, play and outdoor games. 

If you have any questions on this topic why not post a question to one of our online experts or read our article ‘how to avoid shoulder pain when using an ipad’ for advice on taking better care of your musculoskeletal system. We also have a range of articles on activities you can do with your children, which may help in easing them away from their consoles.