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Computers in schools are putting elementary schoolchildren at risk for posture problems, says Cornell study

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ITHACA, N.Y. -- Children in elementary schools may be placed at risk by computer workstations that have been designed with little or no regard for musculoskeletal development, according to a Cornell University study.

The ergonomic and environmental psychology researchers found that almost 40 percent of the third-to-fifth graders studied used computer workstations that put them at postural risk; the other 60 percent scored in a range indicating "some concern." None of the 95 students studied scored within acceptable levels for their postural comfort, says Shawn Oates who conducted the study for her 1995 master's degree at Cornell. The study was recently published in the Computers in Schools (1998, vol.14, issues 3/4, pages 55-63).

In the study, all the keyboard heights were higher than recommended levels, none of the keyboards included wrist or palm rests and the monitors were generally too high.

"In fact, more than half the monitors were higher than adult recommended levels," says Oates, now a standards integration engineer at Ford Motor Co. Oates observed and assessed students at workstations using a standard observational measurement tool that provides quantitative data.

The research was conducted under the supervision of Cornell professors Gary Evans, an environmental psychologist, and Alan Hedge, an ergonomics expert.

"The study revealed a striking misfit between the workstation facilities and the ergonomic requirements for these children," says Oates. She who found no differences in how the children rated in three diverse public school settings: urban, suburban and rural, in upstate New York and southeastern Michigan.

"The research suggests that ergonomic considerations for computer use among elementary schoolchildren are frequently disregarded; this has implications for health problems down the line," adds Evans, an expert on environmental stress and human environment relations.

The researchers found that computer workstations most affected the posture of third graders. Overall, Oates says, the study's findings raise "concern but not alarm."

However, she adds: "Most children are now working for short periods of time on keyboards that are too high and incorrectly angled, looking sharply up at monitors and with their legs dangling, unsupported on the floor." As children spend more time at such workstations, she says, their risk for injury is likely to increase.

"Although children do not currently spend prolonged periods of time keyboarding, their developing musculoskeletal structures could be especially vulnerable to trauma," Oates says. "At this time, we just don't know."

Studies of adults have found that poor posture at computer workstations is linked to risk of neck, shoulder, back, arm and hand musculoskeletal discomfort. No comparable study has yet been done in school settings, Oates says.

Oates points out that about 70 percent of the nation's 30 million elementary schoolchildren use computers in school, with a 10 percent increase each year.

The study was supported by the Cornell College of Human Ecology.