Amid the chaos of getting my three kids up and running with distance learning, proper computer ergonomics admittedly were not top of mind. We were scrambling to get everyone logged into their Zoom sessions, troubleshoot technology glitches and keep up with the information onslaught from more than a dozen teachers.
Though my house doubled as a makeshift school, it didn’t look much like a classroom should. My high-schooler worked while sprawled across a beanbag on the living room floor, hunched over his computer. My middle-schooler, laptop in tow, rotated throughout the day from his desk to the kitchen counter to the couch to the backyard patio table. My fifth-grade daughter worked at a desk most of the time, but her laptop screen was too low, forcing her to look down while she worked, and within a few weeks she started complaining of neck pain.
Early into a school year dramatically reshaped by the Covid-19 pandemic, more than 30 million public school students are doing virtual learning either every day or part time, according to Burbio, a company that is tracking school openings across the nation.
With so many students spending unprecedented long hours on their computers to keep up their grades, experts are reminding parents that without a proper home workstation, remote learning may cause aches and pains and potentially lead to injuries over time.
“We don’t think of kids getting repetitive stress injuries or fatigue injuries or musculoskeletal aches and pains like the parents and grandparents get,” said Dr. Theodore Ganley, an orthopedic surgeon at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics section on orthopedics. But children “are not immune from these things,” especially if they work at computers day after day in awkward postures, he said.
“If kids are slouched and sitting with their feet off the ground, they’re hunched over, they’re staring for hours upon hours without breaks, they can get neck strain, back strain, eye strain,” Ganley said. “These are the kinds of things that can affect anyone.”
Doctors know that poor posture while working on a computer can cause discomfort, with pain developing in a relatively short time. More serious repetitive stress injuries such as tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome usually take at least six to 12 months to develop.
Computer-related injuries on the job can be tracked in adults via workers’ compensation claims, but there is no central database tallying these issues in kids, experts say. While children typically haven’t worked as intensely on computers as adults on the job, distance learning now requires many kids to spend much more time on computers than in the past and in a home environment that may not be properly equipped like a classroom. Exactly how this may impact them is unclear.