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Children Using Computers – Risks vs Benefits

Risks and Benefits of Children Using Computers Computers and video games are a large part of children’s life today. Playstation, Xbox and Nintendo are all part of a typical child’s vocabulary from a very early age. Children are fast learners and quickly pick up new technology without the fear that restricts adults, and handheld games are small and portable and make great amusements on a car journey or when waiting for an appointment.

At home and at school, desktop computers are loaded with similar games to educate in a fun and appealing way. Everything from spelling to new languages, dexterity and brain teasers can be incorporated into a computer game for children. But with all this amazing technology comes many questions:

  • Can computer use harm a child’s eyesight and visual development?
  • Are screens just inches from the face harmful?
  • Should computer glasses be worn when children use the computer?
  • Do children learn more quickly in this high-tech world, and are these educational benefits worth the health risks?

Here are some interesting facts to help you answer these questions and more.

Pre-School Benefits
Recent studies show that preschool children who use a computer are more prepared for school and academic achievement than those who are not computer savvy. In one study, half the children were given the opportunity to work on a computer for a set period of time each day using educational software of their own choice. The children in the non-computer group received a standard Head Start curriculum. All the children were given a set of standardized tests at the beginning of the study, and again after some months. The results were used to assess their visual motor skills and general school readiness. The results showed a marked increase in general development and readiness for school in those who used computers than the test group, who followed the Head Start program. The tests also showed that those who had access to computers both at home and at school had an advantage over the children who only used a computer at school.

The Risks of Computer Use in Children
Eye care practitioners generally believe that prolonged computer use in children will lead to the progressive development of myopia or nearsightedness. Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS) including eyestrain and other visual problems may be the result of computer use. Computer eyeglasses can help as they are designed for viewing computer screens at just the right distance. ‘Moderation in all things’ is a good motto and it is equally applicable to a child’s use of computers.

Ergonomic Problems
How a child sits at the computer can affect development if bad slouching habits are allowed to develop. Make sure they are seated comfortably in a neutral position, that is:

  • The child's head should be centered on his or her neck, not tilted back or forward. The back should be straight and shoulders back but relaxed. Correct the child if you see him or her slumping forward over the keyboard.
  • The upper arms should be close to the body and relaxed, not angled away from the sides or tilted forward. Forearms should be flat on the desk, with the elbows forming at least a 90-degree angle, and the hands nearly level with the forearm, with little wrist bend.
  • Feet are flat on the floor or a footrest, with knees forming at least a 90-degree angle. Don't tuck legs under the chair.
  • The computer screen should be positioned approximately 15 degrees below eye level, and 20-26” away from the child's face.

While it is important to sit properly at the computer, it is also important to take frequent breaks. Computer users of all ages should get up every 30 minutes or so to stretch and relieve muscle tension.

Myopia and Computers
Nearsightedness or myopia may be caused by hereditary factors but some believe that computer eyestrain may also play a part in its development. To see objects up close, the eye has to exert focusing effort. Fatigue may cause changes in the eye which lead to myopia, and focusing on a computer screen causes more eye fatigue than other reading tasks, such as reading a book.

To minimize the risk of developing myopia from computer use, eye doctors recommend looking away from the screen every so often. Some call this the "20-20-10" rule: Every 20 minutes your child should take his eyes off the computer and look at an object at least 20 feet away for at least 10 seconds. This will relax the focusing muscle and will reduce eye strain and fatigue which may lead to myopia. Special computer glasses may also help.

Tips for Maximizing Computer Benefits while Minimizing Health Risks
The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) sets standards of excellence for development programs designed for children from birth to the age of 8. The organization bases these standards on current research in child development and on the professional opinions of specialist childhood educators. The following recommendations regarding computer use by young children may be helpful guidelines to follow. In addition to helping your child have the best educational experience when working on a computer, these recommendations also may decrease your child's risk of eye strain, computer vision syndrome and ergonomics problems:

  • Parents should guide a child's use of computers. Be on hand to answer questions and interact with him as he works on the computer. Take time to observe your child at the computer and participate in computer activities with him. Observing children can reveal a lot about the way they think and solve problems.
  • Preview the software your child uses. While many high-quality products are available, some software may be difficult to use, has violent themes or may not encourage language or learning development.
  • Encourage your child to work with a sibling or friend at the computer to encourage social skills such as turn-taking and cooperation, and helps build your child's ability to interact, speak and listen.
  • Computers should supplement rather than replace educational activities such as art, reading, music, outdoor exploration and socializing with other children.

Computers are an important part of 21st century life and, with due care, can be a very positive part of a child’s development. As the child grows, they should get a complete eye examination each year from an eye doctor, preferably before school starts. Also keep an eye on your child and schedule an annual eye examination and check if your child appears to be squinting, rubbing his eyes or showing signs of eye fatigue.

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