You may have heard of this phenomenon in the headlines in the last week or so. A study printed in a Dutch medical journal suggests that children and teens are suffering from back problems at a rate unheard of since the days of child labour in factories. The problem, according to the researchers, is that kids spend long hours slumped or hunched over handheld technologies (thus the epithet “gameboy back”, though one wonders if this is a little dated and “iPhone back” might have been more appropriate!)
There is some cause for concern here. While it’s true that modern lifestyles mean that the majority of us perhaps spend too much time in a less-than-ideal posture, the significance for youngsters is that their bodies are still in a formative state, and what happens at this stage sets a pattern for the future. Not just in terms of developing bad postural habits, but in the ways that the architecture of the body adapts to those habits. Muscles and ligaments that are constantly being told to maintain a certain position will, over time, adapt to do that job better – and in the process, put strain on discs and joints – weaknesses that may only show up further down the line. This is nothing new; we can all relate to being told to “sit up straight!” Society’s predilection with good posture has waned in recent decades however, and it’s a command much less heard these days.
So, what to do? Firstly, don’t confiscate all your children’s smartphones / iPads, etc – they are trying to grow up in this technologically advancing world and they won’t thank you for holding them back. The key is, movement. Kids get easily and utterly absorbed in their gaming and could sit unmoving for several hours if left to their own devices (excuse the pun). Show them some basic stretches, and then find a way to get them to stretch regularly (find some basic ones here). A reminder on their phone, perhaps? Or for those dedicated online gamers who can’t risk missing the “live action”, at least between each game; or when the game autosaves. Getting your teen to sit bolt upright on a hard chair is probably not going to work, either, but a soft unsupportive sofa won’t be doing them any favours. Try a wobbly chair; you can find chairs these days on a sprung “stalk” base, or give them a gym ball. It’s not going to automatically give them great posture, but they will at least be moving – even if they don’t realise it. Muscle activity not only promotes strength, but improves blood flow, supports joints, helps maintain bone density, and (Danish research suggests) is active in producing hormones with an anti-inflammatory effect. Good stuff, huh? And we’re not talking about intense exercise to produce these effects; a gentle stroll will do nicely. So, maybe have your kids earn their game time with a few errands – a trip to the postbox or down the local shop, or walk the dog round the park? And finally – set a good example! Ever noticed how you can recognise someone at a distance from the way they move? And children learn these peculiarities of movement from their parents, just like they pick up the phrases you say. So, if you’re emailing on your laptop or updating your Facebook status on your phone; be aware of the message you’re sending your children at the same time!