Although he’s happy to see young people enjoying their digital connectivity, Jon Abbott doesn’t want to see them suffering the physical consequences in a few years’ time.
I got my first home computer when I was just 11 years old. It was a ZX Spectrum and I can remember so much about it, well, it feels like only yesterday that I was marvelling at its capability. Having spent the previous two years playing Pong on my old Atari, it felt like the Sinclair was showing me an exciting vision of the future.
Imagine my excitement at transcribing hundreds of lines of code and being rewarded with a moving graphic. This excitement was almost unbearable for a few moments. Then I got bored and decided to head back outside into the world of fresh air and real play.
Fast forward a few years and I didn’t get my first workplace computer until my second job and four years into my career. My world was one of filing client records on a Rolodex rotary and typing out orders before putting them in the post. Urgent messages might even qualify for a fax. Does anybody still fax?
And so today I am in my forties and, like many of us, use a desktop computer, have a laptop, tablet and smartphone. I use a wearable health device and many of my devices and apps integrate to give me useful data about my life. Despite this, I consider technology to be a tool to help me; should I choose to, I could give up my devices tomorrow and continue to have a wonderful life.
How the world has changed since I was thrilled then bored by my ZX Spectrum. I often joke how I should consult a ten-year-old when I need help using my mobile phone. It turns out this isn’t just a joke; last month I learned US paediatricians assess development in two-year-old children by having them attempt to swipe a smartphone. The inability to swipe indicates a slower development rate. I don’t necessarily have an issue with this.
Young people today need technology. We know that school grades are dramatically improved by the use of technology. Research is easier, communication between the school and pupil is more effective and parents are able to get a quicker response from teachers and a better understanding of their children’s progress from emails, websites and learning platforms.
The social lives of young people are dominated by technology too. Last week I visited a restaurant to see a number of families eating out. The adults were chatting amongst themselves. What do you suppose the children were doing? You probably guessed it – playing with smartphones and tablets.
This used to annoy me. Surely a family meal should be just that, a family occasion where everyone can engage and interact with each other. I couldn’t quite understand how young people were being allowed to be so antisocial. But the reality is that they are not being antisocial. They are being more sociable than ever, just not with the people sitting next to them. Modern technologies are enabling young people to engage with more people, in more places, than at any other time in history.
When I reminisce about my younger days I only engaged with a handful of friends at any one time. I was never able to play games while engaging with newly found friends in different countries in the way that online gaming allows young people to do today.
If a young person is enjoying an evening out, they don’t have to remember to tell their friends about it next time they see them, they can tell them right now, via Twitter or Facebook, together with a photograph of the plate of food they are about to demolish. For them, this is great fun and I suppose I’m just starting to ‘get it’. I even do the odd ‘selfie’.
While I am a huge advocate of technology and its ability to help young people communicate I am also very concerned about the health implications. Every day I work to encourage the ergonomics community to engage with parents and our school systems to encourage a better level of education in the use of technology.
Because for all its benefits and enjoyment, it does present some pretty serious risks. I’m not so worried about the social and psychological effects of Facebook. It’s not called social media for nothing and it does stimulate thoughts and ideas. The risks are physical. The prolonged use of digital devices in bad postures and with repetitive movements without proper breaks is going to have a devastating effect on young people’s bodies.
Their bodies are still developing while they are inflicting these stresses and strains on them. This has a double-whammy effect. First, and worst, is that their bodies are more vulnerable to damage and irregular development. They are at greater risk of developing deformities of the limbs and joints.
Secondly, and compounding the first problem, is that they don’t feel the discomfort in their more supple and flexible bodies. To them, no discomfort means no risk so they continue to adopt the bad postures for longer periods and begin to store up awful problems for themselves in later life.
What’s really troubling me now, though, is the attitude of the medical profession. As I mentioned earlier, paediatricians have adopted a skill of using technology as part of the assessment of children’s development – the two-year-old’s ability to swipe a smartphone. I think there is a good chance that some of these same paediatricians will end up assessing injuries caused by repetitive movements and static postures.
But I am really worried that these doctors will not put the two together; that they do not seem to see the link. Telling a parent that their two-year-old girl is developing well because she can swipe a smartphone screen might be a dangerous message to send out, without the warning of the dangers associated with the million swipes she might do before she is ten years old.
Our medical experts need to be advising parents at that very early stage to carefully monitor and manage their children’s digital device behaviour. They need to understand the effects of poor posture and prolonged
technology use and then they need to explain it to their children. Only then will we begin to prevent some of the debilitating ergonomics injuries we are seeing among young people.