Anna Clark, University of Salford, discusses the work she has been doing on identifying the risks to young people associated with technology use, and its wider implications to the workforce

For the last year I’ve been working with Cardinus on a project to identify the risks to young people that come from our obsession with smart phones, tablets and other touch-screen technologies. The impact has been heard around the world, from surgeons who no longer have the dexterity to perform delicate operations, to mental health risks, to elite athletes struggling to retain focus.

However, the MSD risks associated with technology use is poorly documented, particularly in young people. That’s why our project exists. Providing firm evidence for the risk will allow us to develop new programmes and new solutions to mitigate and reduce the potentially huge risk to young people. And for businesses, this means the future workforce too.

From the Transformative to the Terrifying

Technology has always provided humans with a means of overcoming the limitations of the physical bodies. We built the wheel to transport quantities of goods over large distances, we built bridges to quickly traverse rivers and valleys, we developed intricate systems of commerce that helped to speed up development across the world, and we invented the computer to run mathematical calculations at a pace many times quicker than any human could.

With the smartphone you combine a thousand technologies in a huge number of ways in one device that allows instant communication, access to vast quantities of information, the power to compute multiple, complex problems in a second, and the availability of tens of hundreds of apps that can help you sleep at night, project manage your life, view your bank accounts or any number of different tasks.

But technology comes with its problems too. Smart phone ‘addiction’ appears to be on the rise. We have become less sociable, less focused and more reliant on our technology. The physical effects are also apparent. The transformative nature of technology can also have terrifying unseen social and physical impacts. By uncovering the potential risks we can, at a societal or an individual level, put in place the proper protections to reduce and minimise public health risks.

The Project So Far

The first year has been a gruelling nose-to-the-grindstone type of year. We’ve been spending a lot of it building the foundations for the project. This means reviewing the existing literature and putting together a systematic review so that we can better understand the evidence base that’s out there. The draft of the review will be sent to a journal at the beginning of January where it will be peer reviewed and published. A white paper is being produced which will be in circulation in the early 2019 which will outline the whole of the project and why/what we are doing.

We have also drawn up the first phase of the approach, which is an online survey that will go out to schools up and down the country so that children will have a chance to self-report the ways they use technology, how long for and the type of activities they’re using them for. We have also asked them to self-report MSD-type pain. At present this is with the ethics department at the University of Salford as soon as this has been approved the survey is ready to “go live” and run until August 2019.

All this information will be gathered and collected to help inform the later stages of the project where we will be conducting physical tests and measurements on young people to ascertain the way they use technology and the impact it has upon a growing body. While the survey is running in the background I will be looking ahead to the main part of the study. In order to do this, reliability, feasibility and accessibility of the equipment needs to be conducted. I will do a small pilot study to test the protocols of the equipment to use in the main study.

Long Term Projections

The project will conclude in 2021. By then we should have built up a strong evidence base for the link between MSDs in young people and technology use. This will help us to understand the types of injuries young people will be bringing into the workplace. From there Cardinus will be considering the strategies, programmes and techniques that will help alleviate injury, mitigate risk and reduce pain.

Whether this is a technological approach, a training approach or simply a set of guidelines that can help young staff to manage their risk, the outcomes will see an improvement in health and wellbeing. With wellbeing a central focus of corporate strategy these days, a strategy to deal with young workers’ health is a must. Future, forward-thinking organisations will see wellbeing as a core to retention, productivity and staff health targets and implement support for young workers.

We hope to see a positive outcome to this project, and by building the foundations now we are investing in the future workforce and future health of our staff.

For more information on our project with the University of Salford or email [email protected].

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