Tablet devices like the Apple iPad, Samsung Galaxy Tab, and Amazon Kindle Fire are becoming commonplace in everyday society. Several recent studies (eg by Microsoft, the US Department of Environmental Health and the Harvard School of Public Health) have found that tablet users have a higher potential for “neck and shoulder discomfort” versus using a notebook or a desktop computer.

Yes, ‘iPad Shoulder’ is a real medical problem. Using mobile devices like the iPad with poor posture could lead to arthritis or other health issues later – or sooner -in life. And although it may not necessarily lead to ‘iPad Neck’, using a tablet in bed for prolonged periods of time may not be ideal.

Studies have found that although tablet users seem to shift position and move around more than people locked in to traditional desktop and notebook computers (good), tablet users experience greater head and neck flexion angles than using a traditional computer (not good). The worst way to use your iPad is on your lap.

The Harvard study only examined 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.

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 tend to watch videos in the other positions, nor did they tend to surf the Web, play a game, or write email in the Table-Movie position.

Harvard tablet

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 tended 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.

Although these studies only examine a few ergonomic factors associated with tablet use, one result that jumps out is that whether you are watching a movie or typing, keeping your iPad on your lap places greater strain on your neck and shoulders, which can result in pain and potentially greater posture issues in the long run.

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.

Guide to Safe Tableting

Here are some tips for using your tablet in the most comfortable, ergonomic way possible.

Use a tablet as a great media tool, not a computer. Tablets aren’t typewriters. The tablet was designed to provide a portable work tool and flexible media consumption – movies, pictures, books, music – for short periods of time, but it was not intended to be used for eight hours a day.

Try an external keyboard if you are going to spend much time typing emails or even word processing. The tablet can be a great space saver while travelling or commuting, but was not ergonomically designed for long-term repetitive movements such as keying. Consider the possible use of a Bluetooth mini keyboard for use with your tablet.

Also beware of reflected glare from the glossy displays, because although they look good they force users to subtly manipulate their body away from a comfortably, neutral position in order to “fix” their view.

One of the best things about the tablet is the flexibility. Take advantage of it. You can now view media anywhere, and from any position. Muscle strain happens with repetitive motion or sustained positions, so move about and change your position frequently. Don’t always sit at a desk but change your posture regularly.

Add a stand for more comfortable viewing. The position of the screen is often one of the biggest challenges for the tablet. Don’t use it on a flat surface like your lap or a table top for long periods, say over 15 minutes; this will result in neck strain. If you are working for an extended period of time, you will significantly benefit from a tablet stand or similar. Better still, use the tablet stand on a table-top. (An example is the Logitech Ultra-thin iPad case allows you to position the screen at an appropriate viewing angle and use a separate wireless keyboard).

It’s good to be restless. Move around. Sitting too long in any position is always inviting injury, as bodies simply aren’t meant to sit frozen for long periods of time. Muscles and tendons need a break. The ideal posture is the next one you’re going to take. If you’re sitting in one position for more than a few minutes, that’s too long. If you’re feeling uncomfortable, listen to your body.

Despite the temptation to kick back and prop your tablet on your lap, doing so typically requires one to adopt unnatural neck angles or body contortions, forcing users to crane to look down. You can get away with a tablet propped on crossed legs for maybe a couple minutes on the subway, but any longer and you invite a MSD.

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. And I’m not sure about the ergonomics of watching a tablet in bed!

iPad in bed