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Do computers pose a health risk to kids?
Q: My children spend a lot of time on the computer. I’ve encouraged them because I work with computers and think they’re important for children’s education and future. But are there any health hazards for children spending a lot of time on the computer?
A: Computers can certainly offer children positive opportunities for education, creativity and fun. Children are learning to use the computer at younger ages, and they’re spending more and more “screen time” engaged in computer activities as well as television, movies and video games. But children’s screen time takes time away from other activities such as interacting with other children and adults; exercising; exploring the outdoors; doing music, drama or art; daydreaming, and sleeping.

Some health hazards have been identified with children’s computer use:
  • Injuries: When children use the computer for long hours, it puts strain on the muscles, tendons and nerves in their necks, backs, arms, wrists and hands, and places them at risk for developing “repetitive motion syndrome,” just like adults who work on computers for long hours. This can be painful and is particularly dangerous when their bodies are growing.
  • Vision problems: Children can get eyestrain from staring at the computer screen for long hours. When their visual system is developing, it needs stimulation from real-world visual experiences with an opportunity to view objects that are near and far, flat and 3-dimensional, stationary and moving, different colors, etc.
  • Lack of fitness and weight problems: Children who spend more time in front of the computer tend to spend less time doing physical activity. They need daily exercise to develop their muscle strength, coordination and endurance. Also, exercise is needed to burn calories. Children who lack exercise are at risk for obesity, heart disease, diabetes, joint problems and self-esteem issues.
  • Limited social interaction: More time in front of the computer leaves less time for interacting with other children and adults. Children need interactions with other kids and adults to develop their social skills—to learn how to observe and listen to others, communicate their ideas and feelings and play and work together successfully.
  • Exposure to inappropriate material: Certain computer/video games and the Internet can expose children to sexual content and violence. On the Internet children can also become victims of adult sexual predators.

Here are some tips for healthy computer use:
  • Wait until 3 years of age: For children under 3 the best educational experiences involve interacting with adults and other children, being physically active, exploring their environment, using all their senses and learning to communicate.
  • Choose the activities carefully: Make sure that software, music, movies and websites are appropriate for your child’s age and development. Read the ratings for computer games, which describe its content and suggest the appropriate age group. Also use parental controls for Internet access.
  • Ensure the set-up is right for the child’s size: Make sure there is adequate lighting, the chair provides good back support and your child’s feet rest on the floor or a block. When your child’s hands are on the keyboard, they should be slightly below elbow level. The screen should be level with this head to prevent strain.
  • Set time limits: Experts recommend no more than one to two hours of total screen time (computers, television, movies and video games) daily.
  • Balance screen time with other healthy activities: Make sure your child spends plenty of time playing with adults and other children, doing exercise, exploring the outdoors and enjoying creative activities.
Karen Sokal-Gutierrez M.D., M.P.H. Pediatrician