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Time online leads to rise in physical ails

More teens are suffering symptoms usually seen in adults in their 30s and 40s

Aug 01,2015
It was only recently that Kim, a 14-year-old middle school student, noticed he was having difficulty sitting comfortably at his desk. He felt as though a heavy stone was pressed down on his shoulders, he couldn’t concentrate for long.

At the hospital, the doctor diagnosed him with forward head posture, an anterior positioning of the cervical spine often referred to as “scholar’s neck.”

According to Choi Jung-hwa, who works at Myongji Hospital, prolonged slouching when using computers and smartphones can cause forward head posture, a growing problem among teens that can cause neck and back pain. It is often presented as Video Display Terminal (VDT) Syndrome - which includes symptoms like back pain, occurring when people spend too much time in front of a computer - the rate of which has drastically increased among teenagers, medical professionals say.

Simple online connectivity problems can often lead teenagers to turn angry and become nervous. Though physically in their teens, the health problems they experience are typically associated with those in their 30s and 40s.

According to 2014 data from the Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning, 10- to 19-year-olds spend 150 minutes on average per day using the Internet - longer than adults, who spend 144 minutes online on average. Even children between three and nine years old spend 78 minutes on the Internet.

Many reasons, from entertainment to education, explain why teens are so hooked to their devices, though it can come at the cost of their health.

The data showed that 13.2 percent of teenage respondents said their health deteriorated after using the Internet, and 12.4 percent answered they had headaches after Internet use.

When using computers, people most often use their shoulders and neck, keeping their head down. In case of smartphones, both the head and back are slouched. Normally, the neck bones form what looks like a “C,” though this shape can change with ill posture.

“In youth, one hasn’t finished growing yet, so the neck bones can easily shift,” Choi said. “When getting older, degenerative changes, like a slipped disk, can happen early.”

Carpal tunnel syndrome is also reported to be becoming more common among teenagers who use a keyboard and a mouse for long periods. The number of patients diagnosed with the condition was 666 in 2009. Four years later, that number has increased to 861.

One’s skin is also affected by the excessive use of smartphones and electric devices. Teens who use computers until late at night often experience breakouts.

“Once you throw off your biorhythms due to a lack of sleep, it will lead to changes in your skin,” said Kim Beom-joon, a dermatologist at Chung-Ang University Hospital. “Teenagers can have worse skin problems.

Moreover, the electronic waves radiated from mobile phones can cause respiratory infections, experts say. The inside of the human nose is lined with cilia, which filter out harmful substances. But the electronic waves undermine that, which can lead to diseases like rhinitis.

Some teenagers also suffer from xerophthalmia, or dry eyes, a condition in which the eyes cannot produce tears, as they blink less when looking at a monitor or smartphone screen for too long. “Different from adults, myopia [near-sightedness] during adolescence can progress much faster,” said Suh Young-woo, an ophthalmologist at Korea University Ansan Hospital. “Computers and smart phones mainly lead to myopia.”

Medical professionals also say psychological aspects should be taken into account in a digitalized educational environment.

According to the Journal of Korean Academic Society of Nursing Education, elementary school students who use electronic books are more likely to be easily irritated and experience a decrease in concentration and an increase in anxiety.

“If smartphones are used as text books, more will start reporting VDT Syndrome,” said Seomun Gyeong-ae, a nursing professor at Korea University. “Having a break and enough exercise is required to prevent it.”

Experts said when using electric devices, teenagers should set a schedule - 50 minutes for studying and 10 minutes for resting, for instance. Students must also pay attention to their posture when sitting in a chair. Because they are still growing, the position of their desk and chair should match their height.

“Teenagers often don’t have any revelations about their body,” Choi said. “If parents notice something different about their child’s growth, posture or moods, they should consult an expert.”

BY KIM SUN-YEONG [nam.yoonseo@joongang.co.kr]


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