Dear Mr. Dad: My 13-year-old son’s backpack weighs a ton (actually, 25 pounds, but it feels like a ton), and I’m afraid he’s going to hurt himself hauling it around. You’ve talked about the dangers of overloaded packs before, but as far as I can tell, backpacks don’t seem to be getting any smaller. I suggested that he get a wheelie backpack, but he says it’s not cool. I want to talk to the school administrators about this problem, but need some facts to back me up. Please help.
Every year, a month or so into the new school term, I get similar emails from parents all over the country who, like you, are worried about their kids’ backpacks. And, as you’ve pointed out, not much seems to be changing, which continually puzzles me, since more and more schools are switching to digital or cloud-based textbooks. Nevertheless, backpacks are still too heavy and kids are getting injured.
How big is the problem? Consider this:
▪ Every year, backpacks contribute to between 14,000 and 22,000 dislocations, fractures, sprains, strains, and other injuries, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. 5,000 of those injuries are serious enough to land someone in the emergency room. As a result, many kids miss school or can’t participate in PE or after-school sports.
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▪ Although most of those injuries are muscle- or skeleton-related, overloaded backpacks frequently cause short- and long-term nerve damage by pressing on the nerves that go through the head, neck, and shoulders, according to a recent study at Tel Aviv University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering.
▪ The damage done by backpacks is sometimes so severe that it lasts a lifetime.
▪ Backpacks should weigh no more than 10 percent of a child’s body weight, according to the American Occupational Therapy Association. Unless your son weighs 250 pounds, his 25-pound pack is way, way too heavy.
So what can you do?
▪ Encourage teachers and school administrators to switch to electronic books. If they can’t, suggest that they get additional copies of textbooks so that kids can leave one at home and one at school. If they claim there’s no money in the budget, consider buying a second book yourself. You may be able to sell it to another family next year.
▪ Forget about the wheelie backpack. Cool or not, wheelies may do more harm than good. Because they’re easier to move around, kids often load them up with even more stuff. And despite the wheels, your son will still have to lift his pack to get it in and out of the car or to go up or down stairs. Most of the time, he’ll accomplish that with a one-handed yank, which is terrible for his arm, shoulder, neck, and back. Wheelies are also a serious tripping hazard.
▪ Check your son’s equipment, form, and technique. The straps on his backpack should be wide and padded. If they’re not, replace the pack. And he should use both straps at all time. If the pack has a waist and/or chest belt, he should use it; doing so can distribute some of the load from the neck and shoulders to other parts of the body. The heaviest items in the pack should be closest to your son’s back and he should be able to stand up straight while wearing it. Finally, practice proper lifting technique: bend the knees and lift the pack with both arms.
Armin Brott is the author of “The Expectant Father: Facts, Tips, and Advice for Dads-to-Be.”