It’s probably true to say that we are all fairly well aware of the health risks associated with prolonged computer use these days. Anyone who isn’t happy with their knowledge of the facts can quickly bring themselves up to speed – the various risks are well documented and widely available.
However, the sudden increase in the number of touch screen appliances, tablet computers of course, but also smartphones and e-readers, poses a potential problem for some users. Indeed, for many users, a “mobile” device with a touch screen may well be their most frequently used computing device.
The prolonged use of these devices is a fairly recent phenomenon, and part of the problem is that health experts and ergonomic specialists simply haven’t had enough time to fully study how users interact with these devices. Documentation is being produced, but there is considerably less information available than for desktop and laptop computers.
Nevertheless, some initial concerns have already been identified and some sensible suggestions for the safe use of mobile touch screen devices is starting to circulate.
For example, and possibly at the risk of stating the obvious, maintaining good posture when using a tablet computer or a smartphone is every bit as important as when using a desktop or a laptop computer. This requires a little discipline on the part of the user.
When using a desktop or laptop, we normally sit at a desk or workstation and use a mouse and keyboard to enter data. To some extent, good posture can be encouraged by using appropriate chairs, desks etc. and ensuring that the various items of furniture are at the correct relative heights and distances from each other.
Clearly, with a tablet computer there is a lot more individual freedom – which is, to a certain extent, a large part of their appeal. The onus is very definitely on the user to maintain good posture and achieve an ergonomically efficient viewing angle.
Another problem which has been identified is the use of those wonderful touch screens that we all love so much. They are certainly very handy, especially when you’re on the go. However, unlike an “old fashioned” QWERTY keyboard, virtual keyboards offer no positive feedback in the form of a keystroke.
You only know that you’ve achieved your goal when the character that you pressed appears on the screen. This can lead to users pressing virtual keys much harder than they would press the keys on a physical keyboard. Some studies suggest that users may exert as much as eight times as much pressure on a virtual keyboard than would be used on a physical one.
That can lead to problems such as Carpal tunnel syndrome and other stress related issues. It may not be a problem for users who enter text infrequently – but with many users now using tablet computers as their primary device, it could well be an issue for some. If you find yourself entering a lot of text on your touch screen, an external Bluetooth keyboard might be a worthile item for you.
Health and ergonomic studies are ongoing, and further guidelines will no doubt be forthcoming in the near future. In the meantime, tablet computer users would be well advised to make extra efforts to maintain their posture and avoid prolonged text input on their touch screens wherever possible.