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Can Touch Screens Hurt You?

Press on something, and it presses back.
January 17, 2012

We all know that we are frail creatures, that life is short and precarious and fraught with risk, and that often its greatest pleasures are the very things that lead us all the more swiftly to our inevitable undoing. I wish I could tell you that our gadgets offered an exception to this rule. Instead, a medical doctor has come along to tell us that our touchscreens are hurting us.

If you do anything enough – running, jumping, sitting still – it just winds up hurting you. And it turns out that the same is true for using our beloved touchscreens, per Franklin Tessler, M.D., C.M., writing in InfoWorld.

It’s already been well known that touchscreens positioned upright (that is, perpendicular to the floor – not in portrait mode) are unpleasant to use. “Touch surfaces don’t want to be vertical,” Steve Jobs once said, but it was hardly a novel idea: designers have always said that having to reach out to press on a vertical screen caused an unpleasantness that was soon dubbed “gorilla arm.”

But it turns out that touchscreens in other positions hold dangers – “hidden dangers,” per Tessler’s title – as well. Actually, the very fact that tablets and smartphones can be held in any position makes us likely to use them while employing poor posture. (Almost by definition, it’s hard to set up a mobile device in some standard, ergonomically sound way.)

Touchscreen typing, too, puts us in peril. This is generally true of typing, actually: you’ve of course heard of carpal tunnel syndrome, one of several disorders that can result from the unusual contortions or repeated stress that typing evokes. But touchscreens bring with them an extra danger, a relic of their virtuality. Since we don’t receive tactile feedback from touchscreens, we often aren’t quite sure if we’ve pressed a key or not. (Those ersatz clicking key sounds are the best things engineers have come up with so far, but they’re not doing a lot of good, says Dr. Tessler, especially where there’s background noise.) As a result of this uncertainty, many of us are push-typing rather than touch-typing – a Cornell ergonomics expert says users press virtual keys eight times as hard as the real thing, with all the consequent stresses that entails.

Even in between sentences, when we hold our fingers poised rigidly to descend, we are causing something called “isometric tension,” says Tessler, which stresses muscles and tendons.

Mobile devices also bring along their own variants of the old problem of eyestrain. If you’re covetous of your battery life, you dim your display, as I do, an inevitably find yourself squinting outside. And higher resolution screens bring with them ever tinier fonts, which strain your eyes even if your screen is bright.

How do we get out of this mess? What are some tips to avoid touchscreen related trauma? I’m not a doctor, and you should really read Tessler’s comprehensive post in its entirety (if only to learn of cool verbs like “dorsiflex”), but here are a few highlights of things both you and manufacturers can do to help stem this incipient plague. Hold your touchscreen in whatever angle helps you see it most clearly when reading, but when writing, hold it at a shallow angle of about 30 degrees. When typing, try to know your own strength, and not overdo it; manufacturers, meanwhile, should continue researching “haptic” (tactile) feedback. And if eyestrain is a problem for you, eschew tiny fonts, get some reading glasses, and ask your doctor about eye drops if your office or home is very dry.

You may now go back to your regularly scheduled browsing. Just take care of yourself, while you’re doing it.

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