Using a Tablet Can be a Pain in the Neck, Literally

Tablets are supposed to fill the gap between smartphone and laptop. They're regularly touted as ultra-portable solutions for those that like to travel or surf the web while watching TV or laying in bed. But are these devices really doing us any favors by facilitating the opportunity for such casual browsing? According to a study done by The Harvard School of Public Health, the way we use these new and increasingly popular devices could end up causing neck pain.

The study, led by Jack Dennerlein, Senior Lecturer on Ergonomics and Safety at Harvard, tested a group of 15 experience tablet users. The test subjects were brought into the lab to complete a set of simulated tasks on an Apple iPad 2 and a Motorola Xoom, both of which were coupled with their proprietary cases. During the experiment, users were recorded using the tablets in four different positions: Lap-Hand, which saw the tablet held on the lap and the volunteer use one hand to operate the device; Lap-Case, which saw the tablet placed inside its case and positioned on the lap, set at the lower angle setting; Tablet-Case, which involved setting the tablet on the table in its case at its lower angle setting; and Table-Movie, which saw the tablet (again, in case) placed on the table at its higher angle setting. The lower angle setting for the iPad was 15 degrees while the Xoom's lower angle setting was recorded as 45 degrees. The higher angle settings were recorded as 73 degrees for the iPad and 63 degrees for the Xoom.

The test subjects were monitored and recorded while using the device in each of these settings. Activities carried out included browsing the Internet, responding to email, playing games, and watching a movie. While doing this, their head and neck posture and gaze angle were measured using an infrared three-dimensional motion analysis system. The study found that users positioned their head and neck in the most neutral position while in Table-Movie mode. However, in general, the researchers found that study participants' heads and necks were in more flexed positions while using the tablets than those typical of desktop or notebook computer users.

For this reason, Dennerlein recommends that tablet users vary their postures, switching things up every 15 minutes or so. Users are also advised to use a case that doubles as a stand, allowing you to prop the device up and reduce the risk of neck pain.

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Jane McEntegart works in marketing communications at Intel and was previously Manager of Content Marketing at ASUS North America. Before that, she worked for more than seven years at Tom's Guide and Tom's Hardware, holding such roles as Contributing Editor and Senior News Editor and writing about everything from smartphones to tablets and games consoles.