Scott Mortimer's love affair with technology goes way back.
Hooked on the new Apple his dad brought home one day in 1979, the sixth-grader soon found himself doing homework electronically and playing countless video games.
Today, Mortimer, 33, said all that time at the keyboard helped cost him a major part of his life.
He hasn't worked for well over a year, hampered by tendinitis so severe that he has trouble filling out a half-page car insurance form or turning the doorknobs in his Boston area apartment.
He's not alone. A recent study by the National Research Council's Institute of Medicine estimates that U.S. businesses lose $45 billion to $54 billion each year in compensation costs, lost wages and productivity because of musculoskeletal problems like aching backs or throbbing wrists. Almost 1 million people took time off from work in 1999 because of pain in their backs or upper extremities, the report said.
With statistics like that in mind, research teams are hurrying to study the ways children use computers, in the hope of preventing a generation of Quake-playing, essay-typing youngsters from hurting themselves down the road. Nintendo and other video game makers, for instance, have included labels on their products warning players of hand injuries and blisters that can come from moving a joystick too rapidly.
It's not only the games. Alan Hedge of Cornell University and other scholars warn that the widespread use of computers in schools can carry negative consequences if work stations in libraries and classrooms are not set up for youngsters' smaller bodies. Hedge first considered the issue when the Ithaca, N.Y., school district close to his campus proposed introducing computers into most of its classrooms. For the past six years, he and colleagues have studied children's posture as they use the machines. Hedge said about half to two thirds of middle school and high school children report some pain or discomfort after using a computer.
"What we do know is that they are exposing themselves" to potential injury, Hedge said. "We want to try and stop bad habits from developing so by the time they enter the workforce they won't be at risk."
Other academics are catching up. The International Ergonomics Association has a new division devoted to children. The American Academy of Pediatrics is awarding a grant to researchers who are studying children and how they are using their equipment. And next month, scholars will gather at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore for a conference devoted to children and computers.
At this point, it's difficult to say how just spending long stretches staring at a computer monitor, with head tilted forward and arms extended to the keyboard, affects youths and their growing muscles, said Robin Gillespie, a doctoral candidate at New York University who focuses on the issue.
"We don't really know much about cumulative effects and children," she said. "But just reducing the load is going to make a difference. Letting kids play for 15 minutes two times a day instead of sitting there for 30 or 45 minutes will help."
Meantime, technology, ironically, may offer parents and children some suggestions on avoiding problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis. Web sites such as www.magnitude.com contain free software programs to teach children how to pace themselves at the keyboard. Other sites, such as www.healthycomputing.com and www.tifaq.com, allow people with musculoskeletal problems to exchange information.
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