To worried parents, they can look like pack mules on two legs—students who carry a load on their minds and a load on their backs. A backpack loaded with books may cause strain rather than success. Many studies have shown that heavy backpacks place significant stress on children’s spines and may lead to back pain. A recent study by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons said that 58 percent of orthopedists reported seeing children complaining of back and shoulder pain caused by heavy backpacks.
Book bags were never designed to carry such heavy loads, manufacturers say. Several companies are now reinforcing them with metal stays along the back, with extra cushioning in the shoulders and waist belts. Also becoming more popular are backpacks on wheels, which children can pull as though they are rolling suitcases through an airport. They are difficult on curbs and stairs and can create hazards in crowded hallways. And worse, according to the middle school set, they are not cool.
Backpacks come in all sizes, colors, fabrics, and shapes and help children of all ages express their own personal sense of style. When used properly, they’re incredibly handy. Many packs feature multiple compartments that help students stay organized while they tote their books and papers from home to school and back again. Compared with shoulder bags, messenger bags, or purses, backpacks are better because the strongest muscles in the body—the back and the abdominal muscles—support the weight of the packs.
When worn correctly, the weight in a backpack is evenly distributed across the body, and shoulder and neck injuries are less common. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of young students have documented compression of the spinal discs and spinal curvature caused by a typical school backpack load. Over 92% of children in the United States carry backpacks that are typically loaded with 10% to 22% of their body weight. Thirty-seven percent of children aged 11 to 14 years report back pain, the majority of whom attribute the pain to wearing a school backpack. Heavier backpack loads were also associated with increased curvature of the lower spine. Half of the children had a significant spinal curve even with the 18-pound backpack. Most of the children had to adjust their posture to adapt to the heaviest, 26-pound backpack load. But most orthopedists and physical therapists recommend that children carry no more than 10% of their body weight in their packs.
When a heavy weight is incorrectly placed on the shoulders, the weight’s force can pull a child backward. To compensate, a child may bend forward at the hips or arch the back, which can cause the spine to compress unnaturally. Students who wear their backpacks over just one shoulder—as many do, because they think it looks better or just feels easier—may end up leaning to one side to offset the extra weight. They might develop lower and upper back pain and strain their shoulders and neck.
Improper backpack use can also lead to poor posture and backpacks with tight, narrow straps that dig into the shoulders can interfere with circulation and nerves. These types of straps can contribute to tingling, numbness, and weakness in the arms and hands.
Many children maintain that everything in their bags is essential. School administrators say they repeatedly remind children that they need not carry all that they do. The administrators say the problem is one of the quirks of being an adolescent—middle school children would usually rather spend time between classes to socialize than streamline their book bags.
Some schools provide two sets of textbooks for students—one for the classroom and another for home. Schools also try to help students organize their time and belongings. One principal advises parents “Take your child and your child’s backpack into the middle of the living room and empty the whole thing out and then put the backpack on a diet.’’ For children, it’s really an organizational issue. Their whole world is in their backpack, because they’re afraid they are going to forget something.
Despite what one might expect in this digital era of blended learning, when at least some schoolwork can be done online, there has been no apparent decrease in the burden children tote around all day. If the child has to lean forward when walking with a loaded pack, it is too heavy. At the very least, it is a recipe for poor posture and chronically rounded shoulders. And if these forward-bending children must raise their heads to see where they are going, neck pain and pinched nerves can be the result.
One startling study shows that a third of the parents had never checked the contents of the packs, and 96 percent had never weighed them. Parents should select a backpack that is no bigger than absolutely necessary—the more room in the pack, the more the child is likely to carry. A waist strap would be ideal, but it is doubtful that many children would use it. Adjust the shoulder straps so that the bottom of the pack when filled lands no lower than four inches below the waist. Children should be cautioned never to carry the pack on one shoulder.
The issue of overloaded backpacks could well become moot if President Obama and his education gurus have their way. The president wants every student to be using e-textbooks by 2017. Publishers and tablet makers will be urged to work together, and to lower costs, in order to supply the nation’s 50 million schoolchildren with electronic products for educational use.
Although not everyone endorses the idea of moving from words printed on paper to those delivered electronically, there are certain undeniable advantages. Updates to e-textbooks are relatively easy to make, learning would be more efficient and interactive, and materials supplied by teachers could be tailored to better meet individual student needs. Costs aside, the educational advantages are perhaps limitless on devices that allow students to do research, check their work and get feedback from teachers without leaving their classrooms or homes. Digital books can also provide interactive diagrams, audio, and video that are not possible with traditional texts.
Apple has already introduced three types of educational software intended to make the iPad a fixture in the classroom: an updated electronic bookstore called iBooks 2 that allows students to download more interactive textbooks; iBooks Author, a program for creating books; and iTunes U, an app that instructors can use to produce digital curricula and share course materials with students.
A remaining impediment: Will e-textbooks permit students who once complained that “the dog ate my homework” to find a new ream of excuses?
“The battery died, and I couldn’t charge it.” “My iPad got wet in the rain/a puddle/the bathtub.”
Or even: “My little brother hammered it to death.”
By Wallace Greene