Parents' Guide to Ergonomics

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Today's kids spend hours in front of computers every day. If you think that's good news, you're not alone--parents and educators everywhere are clamoring for increased funding for computers in the classroom. And after school comes even more computer time, as kids play games, chat, and do homework.

In the rush to plant a computer on every child's desktop, potential risks to children's physical health have gone largely unnoticed. Although researchers disagree on the scope of the problem, kids are beginning to suffer from the same repetitive stress injuries, headaches, and other illnesses that have plagued their parents for years.

No matter how old a child is, preventing computer-related disorders is much easier than treating them after they strike. You can design children's computer work areas with ergonomics in mind and teach kids good habits that will stick with them.

To help you get started, we've compiled tips to help you set up kid-safe computer work areas. To make monitoring their computing habits easier, you may want to locate the family Mac in a room where an adult will spend a lot of time. (For a guide to computer-based education for kids, see "," elsewhere in this issue.)

Contributing Editor Franklin n. Tessler, M.D., has been writing about computer ergonomics and input devices since 1991.

1. All Ages   While different body sizes require different ergonomic adjustments, certain basics apply to all children. Kids like to squirm, so getting them to avoid stressful postures is a challenge. Rather than telling children what to do, sit down and show them how to use pointing devices and keyboards without twisting, reaching, or stretching.

Glare is hard on even young eyes. Ambient and task lighting should illuminate the keyboard and work area without overwhelming the screen (A). Glare shields cut down on reflection, but they also reduce the monitor's effective brightness. The best way to limit glare is to reorient the entire workstation.

An adjustable keyboard tray (B) helps keep hands and wrists in a neutral position. This one from Proformix (model number EF3505P; 800/973-2739, ) costs $320.

Dangling legs put extra stress on the thighs. If necessary, use a small stool, an old telephone book, or a knapsack as a footrest (C).

Ages 5 to 10   You wouldn't expect a five-year-old to wear your clothes. Full-size furniture and computer hardware don't fit small kids any better than adult clothes do.

Keep the top of the monitor at or below eye level (A), so the child doesn't have to look up to read the screen.

Hands and wrists should be straight (B), and elbows and knees should be open to more than 90 degrees C .

Small hands may find a trackball easier to use than a conventional mouse. If your child prefers a mouse, try Macally's diminutive iMouseJr. ($39; 626/338-8787, ), a USB option (D).

DataDesk Technologies' Little Fingers (E) ($70; 888/446-3222, ) sports smaller keys. It's also available with an integrated trackball.

A firm pillow or rolled-up towel (F) keeps young backs straight and allows a child to reach the mouse and keyboard without stretching unnaturally.

Ages 10 to 15   If older kids are big enough, they can use standard computer equipment, desks, and chairs with only minor modifications.

Some sources say that wrist pads are fine for resting, but they shouldn't be used when the child is typing (A).

Some children may benefit from Contour Design's Perfit Mouse B (price varies; 800/462-6678, ), which comes in a range of sizes for left- and right-handed users. If your child is left-handed, put the pointing device to the left of the keyboard.

An adjustable chair (C) supports a child's back and legs. As with smaller kids, feet should lie comfortably on the floor or on a footrest (D).

TIP:  Encourage brief rest breaks every 15 or 20 minutes.

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