How Phones And Tablets Hurt Kids’ Bodies (And How To Fix It)
By Erik Missio
Photo by monkeybusinessimages/Istockphoto
Oct 14, 2015
What kid doesn’t love playing with a phone or tablet?
Between watching videos, playing games, learning new things and communicating with families and friends, devices come with unlimited potential for kids.
Unfortunately, too much time on these devices can also mean eye strain, back problems and excessive sedentary time. We checked in with a physiotherapist and an optometrist to find out how parents can help keep kids healthy while they’re using phones, tablets and computers.
Find A Balance Between Active And Sedentary Activity
When kids spend too much time in front of screens, they miss out on activities that are key to refining gross motor skills—activities like ball throwing, rope skipping, running or bike riding—says Jennifer Ryan, a physiotherapist at Toronto’s Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital. She’s worked with children for more than a decade.
It’s not about being active all the time—but it is about find a balance between high energy and sedentary activities like reading a book, playing with building blocks or crafting.
“Children benefit from exposure to fine motor activities—handwriting, tying shoelaces, manipulating small objects, cutting with scissors,” Ryan explains. “By replacing handwriting with typing and swiping, children are not getting the amount of exposure to these tasks [they need] to learn and refine age-appropriate skills.”
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Proper Posture Makes A Big Difference
Staring at screens can also affect a kid’s posture.
“Being hunched over a tablet for prolonged periods is not good for anyone—adults or children,” Ryan says. Over time, poor posture leads to the shortening of some muscles and lengthening of opposing muscles, which can result in pain. Kids may not feel pain right away because their bodies are flexible and resilient, but they’re at risk of picking up bad habits that can carry into adolescence and adulthood.
There are other factors that place children at greater risk of developing long-term postural problems compared to adults, including their size, body composition and the fact that their bones are still growing.
“Children, like adults, have a tendency to move into a ‘head forward’ position when working at a computer or on a mobile device,” says Ryan. “Proportionately, a child’s head is larger [than an adult’s], relative to the rest of their body. As a result, their muscles are supporting a greater weight in an awkward position [compared] to adults. This can cause greater strain on the neck.”
The best position for a kid on a phone or tablet is one where the spine is reasonably straight.
Ryan says the best position for a kid on a phone or tablet is one where the spine is reasonably straight; the hips, shoulders and head are stacked atop each other; and the feet and lower back are supported.
Having a tablet on an inclined surface also helps—this stops kids from looking down for a long period of time.
Pay Attention To Kids’ Eyes
Even when they’re sitting up straight, kids who spend lots of time on tablets and phones are still potentially harming their eyes, says Dr. Fiona Soong, an optometrist with a special interest in pediatrics and almost two decades of clinical experience in Toronto at Eyes on Sheppard Optometric Clinic in Toronto.
“Too much up-close work can stimulate...nearsightedness, which leads to needing glasses for distance,” she explains. “People who spend more time outdoors have better vision—part of that is natural light and [part is] long-distance stimulus versus reading on a screen.”
Blue light, which is associated with both the sun and LED screens, can contribute to cataracts and age-related macular degeneration. This might mean long-term effects for kids who are exposed to video time so much earlier than previous generations.
Soong suggests kids and parents alike cut out tablet or smartphone use before bedtime.
Since blue light is also used to regulate our sleep/wake cycle, it may trick our brains into turning off the melatonin, making it harder to fall asleep. For this reason, Soong suggests kids and parents alike cut out tablet or smartphone use before bedtime.
Brain and eye connections develop between the ages of three and eight, making eye health critical. In addition to keeping up with regular optometrist appointments, Soong says parents should be aware if their kids complain about headaches, blurry vision, light bursts or red eyes during or after tablet and phone use.
While she suggests following general screen time rules with kids to prevent Computer Vision Syndrome, Soong is also a parent who understands how hard it can be to curtail tech use.
“My older kids need to submit homework on the computer, so they unfortunately do get more than 30 minutes—it can consume hours in the evening. I try to encourage them to use paper when they can; this means printing out work to read and highlight, rather than [reading] onscreen,” she says.
Soong also bought her kids prescription-less Gunnars (glasses that filter blue light), for when they need to be on the computer long-term. These glasses reduce the stress of the screen and have curved lenses that may play a role in keeping eyes humid.
Take Breaks, Move Around
Both Soong and Ryan stress the importance of limiting screen time sessions and taking rest breaks from gaming or texting—getting up and moving around to give both your body and your eyes a break.
When kids put down a device, they can raise their arms up above their head, bend down to touch their toes, hold their arms away from their sides and twist their bodies from side to side.
“Run! Jump! Dance!” says Ryan. In other words, kids should keep on being kids.
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