Warning of spine damage to young from computer games

Medics say condition becoming common among eight to 18-year-olds

Two Dutch orthopaedic specialists have identified a new, uniquely 21st century, medical condition they’ve called “Gameboy back” – a curvature of the spine afflicting youngsters who spend their days hunched over games consoles and other handheld devices such as smartphones and iPads.

The medics say the condition is becoming common among eight to 18 year olds, who are visiting their family doctors complaining of mystery back problems previously seen only in hardworking adults over 50.

Surgeons Piet van Loon and Andre Soeterbroek say the last time curvature of the spine and herniated discs were seen in children and teenagers was more than 100 years ago, when child labour was still relatively common in Europe.

“In those days, kids got weak backs from child labour; now they’re getting it from these devices,” said Dr Soeterbroek. “It makes no difference to the body whether you’re hunched over in a cigar factory or spending eight hours over an iPad.”

He and Dr Van Loon are joint authors of an article in the Dutch medical magazine Medisch Contact, which alerts GPs to the trend.

“Essentially, it’s like growing bonsai trees: bone responds in the same way as wood,” said Dr van Loon. “If you force it in a certain direction over a prolonged period, that’s how it ends up growing.”

The problem is not the devices themselves, and the answer is not to ban them, he says. It’s a question of posture: particularly, good sitting habits. “Attention to posture has almost disappeared the world over. That’s an urgent message we want to send to parents, physical education teachers and family doctors: it’s becoming accepted as normal that children and teenagers have bad posture.”

The simplest test for Gameboy back is to have children bend over and touch their toes, making an “n” shape. Those with curvature of the spine won’t be able to flex in the middle enough to touch their toes. Teenagers who sit for hours over a screen with head bowed, forcing the spine to curve outwards, can counter this by lying on their front and propping themselves on their elbows.