Thanks to efforts by government agencies, trade associations, and professional groups such as the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, people who use desktop computers are now more familiar with strategies to reduce risk by choosing equipment wisely and using it properly than they were 10 or 15 years ago. Vendors of computers, accessories, and office furniture routinely plug the ergonomic advantages of their products, and manuals often include advice about how to work with them safely.
Regrettably, awareness about risks hasn't trickled down to the world of touchscreen devices and notebooks. Here are some of the ways notebooks and mobile devices can hurt you and what you can do to prevent injury.
First up: Notebooks' health perils
For years, notebook users were forced to trade power for portability. No longer -- recent laptops rival desktop rigs in speed and storage. For many people, laptops pull double duty on the road and in offices and homes. Unfortunately, their design limits them ergonomically. Because the display and keyboard are attached to one another, you can't position them optimally at the same time.
For extended desktop use, an add-on monitor lets you place the keyboard at desktop height, with your elbows bent at a 90-degree angle and the top of the external display at about eye level, as the "Safer computing" video and "Safer computing" slideshow demonstrate. If that's too expensive, get a stand to elevate the laptop's built-in monitor, and buy a separate keyboard and pointing device.
Notebooks pose even more problems when you use them in casual settings or at an office's guest desk or a hotel room's desk, where it's harder to find positions that don't put too much stress on your neck, shoulders, arms, wrists, and hands. If you work on the road a lot, consider carrying a lightweight external keyboard and pointing device, then elevating the laptop with a phone book or other object.
If you insist on using your laptop in bed or while you're watching television on the couch, avoid the temptation to lie on your side with your head propped up on your arm: That puts stress on your neck and makes it nearly impossible to type or use a keyboard or trackpad in anything resembling a natural position. In bed, sit with your back upright, supported by a firm cushion, place a pillow beneath your knees, and angle the screen to minimize reflections from lights behind you. Even if you take these precautions, don't use the computer for more than, say, 5 or 10 minutes at a stretch without taking a break. If you have to work for more than a half-hour or so, move to a desk if you can.
Dealing with the new hazards of touchscreen devices
If notebooks tempt people to employ them in awkward ways that promote injury, tablets and smartphones almost guarantee such awkward use because they can be accessed almost anywhere and in any position -- most of which involve poor posture.
Your neck and the cervical spine that supports it are highly susceptible to poor posture, which can compress or stretch on the nerves that exit the spinal cord. Resist the temptation to bend your neck forward or backward, and especially avoid turning your head or tilting it to one side or another for prolonged periods. Take frequent breaks, and if you feel any pain, numbness, or tingling, stop what you're doing immediately and find a more comfortable position.