School Computers Might Harm Posture

By PAMELA MENDELS

Some elementary school computers are set up without accommodation for healthy typing postures, and that could put children at risk of developing the painful repetitive stress injuries that have plagued office workers in recent years, according to a study by researchers at Cornell University.

In the study, which is to be published in the May issue of the journal Computers in the Schools, researchers watched 95 elementary schoolchildren from 11 schools as they worked at computers in classrooms and computer labs. The study found "striking misfits" between the children and the computer workstations.

In all of the setups, for example, keyboards were placed higher than recommended for children and in most cases the computer monitors were too high as well. That means the children were seated in ways that encouraged craned necks, hunched shoulders, awkwardly placed wrists and other unhealthy postures, said Shawn Oates, the principal author of the study.

The study concludes that because children are spending only limited amounts of time at school computers, they are only at "moderate postural risk." But Ms. Oates said in an interview this week that classroom computer setups bear close watching because of a nationwide push to get computers into schools and the increasing amount of time children spend using them.

Ms. Oates wrote the study as a master's thesis at the College of Human Ecology at Cornell.

Researchers at Cornell are also looking at other aspects of computer use and children. In a separate study, published this month in the Journal of Research on Computing in Education, researchers found that a group of middle-school children worked in healthier positions when given adjustable trays for holding the keyboard and mouse.

Older students have complained of problems, too. A 1996 survey of 350 professors, graduate students and staff members at Carnegie Mellon University, for example, found that 22 percent of respondents reported symptoms of repetitive stress injury that they attributed to typing.

In the study of elementary students, Ms. Oates examined schools in three diverse districts -- one suburban, one rural and one urban -- but the results suggested that a larger sample of schools needed to be examined for definitive results.

There are many issues the study does not address. Among them are the amount of time children are spending on computers and the interplay between home and school computer use, said Robin Mary Gillespie, an ergonomics specialist at the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at Hunter College in New York.

It is also not known whether children, whose bodies are more supple than adults', may be less susceptible to repetitive stress injuries, said Dr. Robert E. Markison, a San Francisco hand surgeon who specializes in repetitive stress injuries.

Another unknown, said David Rempel, a doctor and the director of the ergonomics program at the University of California at San Francisco, is whether the cumulative effects of young children's work in poor postures could lead to injuries later in life. Schools may be failing to teach children, who can expect to be spend a great deal of time with computers, healthy posture.

"If you are taught something and don't have the right equipment, you are not going to be ingrained with the right habits," Dr. Rempel said.


Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company, The New York Times, January 17, 1999, Sunday, Late Edition - Final, Section 1; Page 16; Column 1; National Desk

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