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Originally published Monday, March 7, 2011 at 7:32 PM

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How to encourage healthy computing

Eye strain, neck pain and wrist aches afflicting kids.

McClatchy Newspapers

For today's students, life is all about staring at a screen.

They spend hours doing homework, playing games, chatting with friends, reading books and just hanging out — all on computers, smartphones and e-readers or tablets.

And doctors say they're starting to pay the price: in eye strain, neck pain and wrist aches.

"Kids have a limited degree of awareness, so they'll just play and play until they're exhausted," said Patricia Smith of Triangle Eye Physicians in Raleigh, N.C. "You've got to parent up and limit the amount of computer time."

But that's not always easy. The portable nature of most of those devices makes policing online time a challenge.

Apex, N.C., mom Tiffany Edwards said she thought her 14-year-old son Torin spends two to three hours a day on his electronic devices, which include a computer, an iPhone and the iPad he got for Christmas.

Ask Torin, however, and he said it's closer to five hours a day.

He's starting to have some neck pain, but the Salem Middle School student doesn't think it is related to his iPad. His mom, however, is not so sure.

"I notice it through the day, him just wiggling his neck around trying to relieve some of the pain and things like that," she said. "I don't know what the solution is. It's not like they're not going to use the devices."

On that they can agree. Torin says he's not going to scale back his computer use.

But doctors say that talking about online time and setting boundaries is important because too much time staring at a screen can cause health issues — particularly on children's eyes and backs.

Here are some warning signs:

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Squinting at the screen

Leaning in toward the screen

Rubbing eyes

Complaints of dry eyes

Complaints of headaches

Back or neck pain

Insomnia

— — —

Think about eye health:

Patricia Smith of Triangle Eye Physicians offered these tips for parents concerned about their children's eye health:

Make sure your child is viewing the computer at his or her own height. A child sitting at an adult's desk will be looking up at the screen. This exposes more eye surface, increases the rate of blinking and can lead to eye fatigue more quickly.

Take note if your child is complaining of dry or itchy eyes. Sometimes kids can develop "dry eye syndrome" from staring at a screen and not blinking enough.

Watch for excessive eye rubbing. Kids who are heavy eye rubbers can actually damage their corneas.

Make sure that when your kids take breaks, they are not simply moving to another screen-related activity, like watching TV. Encourage them to go outside, play a game or do something else that does not involve a monitor to truly give their eyes a break.

— — —

Watch your posture:

Sitting up straight can do a lot to prevent posture problems or pain in the back and neck, said Amy Howes, a physical therapist forWakeMed, who works in a clinic in the Kerr Family YMCA. She offered these tips for parents and kids:

Find a chair that supports your lower back. Your feet should be on the floor and should be in line with your knees. If your child's feet do not reach the floor, use a footrest or other booster.

Use a desk. Do not use a computer or laptop sitting on the couch. "That sort of makes you want to slouch and bend over, and that's not always best," she said. "Plus, if you're sitting on a couch, you're much more likely to not be doing your work and to get distracted."

Keep your ears in line with your shoulders and your shoulders in line with your hips. In other words — sit up straight!

If you find that you have soreness or pain in your back or neck, try these three simple stretching exercises.

1. Sit up straight, put your arms at your sides and try to squeeze your shoulder blades together. Hold for 5 to 10 seconds, relax and then repeat.

2. Tilt your ear toward your shoulder to stretch your neck, hold for 5 to 10 seconds, then look straight ahead and then repeat for the other shoulder.

3. Bring your shoulders up toward your ears like you are shrugging, hold for a few seconds and then relax.

— — —

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