Are tablet ergonomics a pain in the neck?

tablet-neck-strain

Now that tablet devices like the Apple iPad, Samsung Galaxy Tab, and Amazon Kindle Fire are becoming commonplace in everyday society, researchers have started examining some of the possible ergonomic impacts of these devices. After all, almost every other technological gizmo and device that has become ubiquitous in society seems to have an impact on our bodies, from desktop computer users suffering carpal tunnel syndrome and circulation problems to gamers and “Generation Text” experiencing thumb and wrist injuries. Before then, centuries of people wore down their bodies on telephone and telegraph gear, industrial machinery, looms, and countless other devices. Why should tablets be any different?

According to researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health, they aren’t. A new study (PDF) published this month in Work: A Journal of Prevention, Assessment, and Rehabilitation is among the first to look at the possible ergonomic impacts of tablet use, and there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that tablet users seem to shift position and move around more than folks locked in to traditional desktop and notebook computers. The bad news is that most common ways of holding and using tablets seem to put considerable strain on users neck muscles — especially compared to typical desktop computing setups.

What did the Harvard team find, and what can tablet users do to protect themselves?

Tableta rasa

The Harvard study is among the first to look at the ergonomics of using a tablet, and its scope is necessarily limited: It only examines the effects of tablet use on the head, neck, and shoulders while seated in a relatively deep lounge-style chair, with a slightly reclined back and no arm rests. A myriad of other parts of the body (like the hands, arms, and the back) weren’t considered, nor were a number of other postures and ways people use tablets, such as standing, walking, lying flat, perched on a stool, crammed into an airplane or bus seat, and many more.

To look at the effects of tablet use, researchers wired up subjects with a infrared three-dimensional motion analysis system (think of it as something akin to the motion capture systems used in movies), and asked subjects to perform a range of tasks with tablets in four different positions:

  • Lap Hand: User holds the tablet in their lap without a case, supported (or not) by their hand
  • Lap Case: Tablet sits on the lap with its case set to its lowest angle
  • Lap Table: Tablet rests on a table with its case set to its lowest angle
  • Table-Movie: Tablet rests on a table with its case set to its highest angle (for media viewing)

The researchers came up with four basic tasks—Internet browsing and reading, playing a game (solitaire), composing short replies to email messages, and watching short videos. Not all tasks were performed in all positions. The video-watching task, for instance, was exclusive to the Table-Movie position. Subjects didn’t watch videos in the other positions, nor did they have to surf the Web, play a game, or write email in the Table-Movie position.

Harvard tablet ergonomics positions

So what tablets were used? The researchers picked two: an Apple iPad 2 with a Smart Case running iOS 4.3 and a Motorola Xoom tablet with Motorola’s Portfolio Case running Android 3.0.

The tilt angles offered by the cases are quite a bit different: the iPad Smart Cover can handle tilt angles of 15° and 74°, while the Motorola Portfolio case does angles of 45° and 63°. As we’ll see, that might make a big difference.

Flex Time

Overall, the researchers found that subjects came closest to generally-accepted neutral ranges of head and neck flexion in the Table-Movie posture, with the neck being well within neutral values and the head falling just inside it. However, for the three other postures, subjects’ head and neck flexion fell some 15 to 25 degrees outside the neutral range. Users tend to hold their heads out and look downward when using a tablet on their laps or on a tabletop. That, in turn, puts stress on the neck muscles, far more strain than someone using a traditional computer, who can maintain a more-or-less neutral position where the weight of their head is supported by the bones of the neck and spine, rather than muscles.

Harvard tablet ergonomics angles

Generally speaking, using a tablet on a tabletop (the Table-Case posture) rather than a lap resulted in a lower cranio-cervical angle — meaning their heads tended to be more aligned vertically with their spines.

However, there were significant variations between the iPad and its Smart Cover and the Motorola Xoom and its Portfolio Case, and they don’t bode that well for iPad users. Angles of neck and head flexion were significant higher for the iPad 2 with Smart Cover in both the Lap-Case and Table-Case postures when compared with the Xoom and its case. Presumably, the Smart Cover’s lower angle (25° compared with 45°) meant users held their heads and necks at at more of an angle. Similarly, the researchers found iPad users had a significantly lower gaze angle in the Lap-Case and Table-Case postures. Researchers also found that iPad users put the iPad significantly lower and closer to them than they put the Xoom in the Lap-Case and Table-Case postures — again, probably influenced by the Smart Case’s flatter orientation. Researchers found that subjects consistently positioned the Xoom so their viewing angle of the tablet was nearly perpendicular for all four postures, meaning their view of the tablet’s screen was more-or-less flat. However, in the Lap-Case and Table-Case postures, iPad users tended to have a more oblique view of the screen.

Just in case

Although the study only examines a few ergonomic factors associated with tablet use, one result that jumps out is that cases make a big difference if you’re going to use a tablet on a table or on your lap. Although Apple’s Smart Cover offers two significantly different viewing angles, its shallow 25° tilt intended for typing seems to make users more prone to hunching over their tablet, putting strain on their neck. (That’s not to knock Apple’s Smart Cover exclusively; the same thing likely applies to other tablet cases that offer shallow use angles.) However, that doesn’t necessarily mean a steep tilt is better. It doesn’t take much more than a glance at someone using a tablet at a 45° angle on a tabletop to realize trying to use an onscreen keyboard at such a tilt is difficult— and likely hard on the wrists over time.

Another interesting finding is that the only posture in the study where subjects exhibited neutral values for their neck and head angles was the highly-angled, passive Table-Movie posture. Put another way, the least stressful way to interact with a tablet is not to interact with it at all: Just prop it up and look at it.

Safe tableting

As more people rely on tablets for everyday communications and tasks — and are using them to replace things like netbooks, notebooks, and even traditional desktop computers — they’re spending more and more time with the devices, increasing their risk of stress and injury from prolonged use. So, the best advice for using a tablet over the long term likely derives from all the ergonomics lessons we’ve learned from PCs, gaming, and other tasks:

  • Try to keep your upper body posture neutral and well supported. Keep your neck straight, your shoulders relaxed, and your arms positioned near your sides.
  • Part of the “tablet hunch” comes from placing them them well below the field of vision when we’re in a neutral posture. If you’re using a tablet for a long time, consider adjusting your seating or the position of the tablet so it’s at or just below your field of vision when you hold your head and back at a neutral angle. That may mean positioning the tablet well above a table or desk surface, just like many people do with notebooks (with or without desktop docking stations).
  • It may look silly, but for long periods of use, using a separate keyboard rather than on on-screen keyboard is probably a good idea to help maintain good ergonomics. You don’t have to take it with you everywhere you go like some 21st century version of a pocket protector, but if you find yourself doing long writing or messaging sessions on a tablet, a keyboard might be a good idea.
  • Move around. Tablets are inherently portable devices, and people take them everywhere they go, so that means tablet users are more likely to shift position, get up, walk around, and change their posture than a typical desktop PC user who might stay in a chair for hours at a time. Whether using a desktop, notebook, gaming console, or tablet, frequent breaks to stretch, move around, and get blood flowing are critical. Use it or lose it.

What’s next

Reports have the Harvard team next looking to examine the effects of tablet use on the arms and wrists, which could be even more interesting. And, just in case folks were wondering, the study was partially funded by Microsoft, which is looking to make a big splash in the tablet market with Windows 8 later this year. (Although two Microsoft researchers helped design the study, they didn’t participate in data collection or analysis.)

Computing

Four fake cryptocurrency apps were listed on the Google Play Store

It is a dangerous time to be going after crytocurrency on Android. Four bogus cryptocurrency apps were spotted on the Google Play Store this week, according to a report from cybersecurity researcher Lukas Stefanko. 
Computing

Heal your wrist aches and pains with one of these top ergonomic mice

If you have a growing ache in your wrist, it might be worth considering changing up your mouse for something ergonomic. But which is the best ergonomic mouse for you? One of these could be the ticket to the right purchase for you.
Home Theater

Google Chromecast and Chromecast Ultra: Everything you need to know

Google's Chromecast plugs into your TV's HDMI port, allowing you to stream content from your tablet, laptop, or smartphone directly to your TV. Here's what you need to know about all iterations, including the 4K-ready Chromecast Ultra.
Home Theater

What is MHL, exactly, and how does it work with your TV?

There are more ways to mirror your smartphone or tablet to your TV than you might think. Check out our rundown of MHL for everything you need to know about the wired protocol and its myriad uses.
Deals

The best iPad deals for November 2018

In the wide world of tablets, Apple is still the king. If you're on team Apple and just can't live without iOS, we've curated an up-to-date list of all of the best iPad deals currently available for November 2018.
Mobile

Best iPhone 7 Plus screen protectors to shield your big, beautiful display

Cracked screens are expensive to replace. Fortunately for you, we've rounded up what's available in terms of protection for Apple's large iPhone 7 Plus. Here are the best screen protectors you can buy.
Mobile

New sensor from L’Oréal tracks UV exposure to keep your skin safe from the sun

L'Oréal has announced a new wearable sensor that attaches to your clothing and can track ultraviolet light. The sensor uses NFC instead of Bluetooth -- meaning it doesn't need a battery to work properly.
Cars

Uber rolls out rewards program that lets its most loyal riders lock in prices

Uber launched a new loyalty program today called Uber Rewards. It offers frequent riders credits to Uber Eats, car upgrades, and the ability to lock in prices on their most traveled routes.
Gaming

15 tips for keeping your vault-dwellers alive in ‘Fallout Shelter’

The wasteland can be an unfriendly place, if you don't know what you're doing. Here are 15 tips that will help your vault thrive in Fallout Shelter, including information on questing.
Mobile

Motorola Moto G7: Here’s everything we know

The Moto G6 range is still relatively new to the market, but rumors have already started about the Moto G7, which is expected some time in 2019. Apparently, a G7 Power version will be joining the G7, G7 Play, and G7 Plus.
Mobile

T-Mobile's new Revvl 2, Revvl 2 Plus are now available for purchase

Last year, T-Mobile launched its own line of branded smartphones. As a follow-up to their predecessors, the carrier has unveiled the Revvl 2 and Revvl 2 Plus -- complete with a sleeker design. Here's everything you need to know.
Mobile

How to take great photos with the Pixel 3, the best camera phone around

You’ve scored yourself a new Google Pixel 3 or Pixel 3 XL, and you want to take advantage of that incredible camera. We’ve got everything you need to know right here about how to snap the best photos with your Pixel 3.
Wearables

Google's Wear OS update 'H' promises battery life improvements

Google has rebranded its Android Wear operating system to Wear OS. Removing the Android name may help people better understand Google-powered smartwatches, which also play nice with iOS devices. 
Smart Home

Huawei could soon take on Google and Amazon with a new digital assistant

According to a report from CNBC, Huawei is working on a new digital assistant that could try to take on the likes of Google and Amazon's Alexa. Huawei already has a digital assistant in China, but the new one will be aimed at markets…