Are you making
your child
a hunchback?

A heavy school bag can bring about a change in posture and can strain the back of the child

By Bikram Vohra

Published: Tue 13 Sep 2011, 9:58 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 7:41 AM

It is the night before school opens. This five-year-old girl came to my home with her parents so we could wish her luck. She had her school bag with her. I picked it up by chance and it seemed it was loaded with stones. I put it on the weighing machine and watched the needle arc to the 8 kilo mark.

Age 5. Books 8 kilos ... it is a crazy world.

I then helped her put it on her back and climb the stairs which she did, bent like a Sherpa climbing towards camp II.

To say this is shocking is putting it very mildly. Parents and teachers have to be utterly ashamed that they have not worked out a way to prevent this torture.

In medical terms, anyone with more than 18 per cent of their weight as baggage will get back trouble. Which means she should be at least 45 kg at the age of five. On average, children are carrying 35 per cent of their body weight. Even the old professional ‘coolies’ did not do that.

Dr Regi Thomas, MD, GP of Dubai-based Al Aweer Clinic, has this to say: “In the case of school children, ideally a trolley bag is the best. Carrying a heavy bag brings about a change in posture and strains the back of the child. It affects the spinal curvature. Straps of backpacks even injure the tissues of the chest. Many schools in Dubai do not permit trolley bags. Ideally, books should be kept in school and just one or two books sent home with the children.”

What is the hostility to trolley bags? When it rains you take umbrellas, don’t you, so why not a light trolley? If you can take it to an airport why not to a school? Why is it not allowed? Do school authorities believe bent spines are a better alternative? Maybe if they were given the right to sell the trolleys and make money, they would probably jump at this idea.

Dr Abraham Paul, orthopaedic surgeon, Union Medical Centre in Karama, has a very clear idea of the issue: “Carrying heavy bags for long can cause muscular pain. Children may tend to stoop to the front. So it is advisable to reduce the weight of school bags. Recently, I read in the newspaper that schools in the United States are moving on to iPads. This is a good option. We should ask the question, “Why are small children made to carry so many books?”

According to Medscape, a study done by Balague indicates: “A fairly high percentage of the young adolescents (43.6 per cent) in our study reported complaints of neck and/or shoulder. This percentage is considerably higher than the percentages found in the study of Balagué. Pain limited to the cervical area was reported by 8 per cent of children reporting spinal pain (74 per cent of the total population reported spinal pain once to almost continuously). Pain radiating from the neck to upper arms was described by 23 per cent. The prevalence of back complaints in our study amounted to 46.5 per cent. Percentages found in the literature vary widely (from 8 per cent to 74 per cent) but cannot be compared properly because of different definitions of (low) back pain. The youngest children in our study showed most neck and/or shoulder complaints.”

Patricia Johannson (name changed), mother of a 15-year-old boy, has this to say: “Every day, we have a fight at home because my son insists on taking all his books to school. He is 15, physically well built and in a senior class. He has complained about back pain. I must admit I find it difficult to lift his bag and prefer to drag it so that I do not strain myself. I know of some friends who tell me that trolley bags are not allowed in some schools in the UAE because the noise disturbs students who are in the classes. This seems like a very flimsy excuse.”

Some teachers tend to exercise common sense.

Liza Terry, head teacher, Jumeirah International, Al Wasl Branch: “In our nursery, school bags are not heavy as children carry only snacks and water in their bags. We cater to two to four-year-olds. Children usually bring these in their trolley bags. The tiny tots have assistants carry their bags for them. School books and stationery are kept at the school itself.”

A parent of another student who is afraid of giving her name says, “My son is 11 years and in Class 6. Unfortunately, trolley bags are not allowed at the school that he goes to. Children are forced to carry the bags on their backs. On the first day of school, all the books have to be taken to the school and the school bag becomes really heavy.”

The fear of retribution rides so high on parents that they will suffer all indignities not to get themselves or their kids into trouble, even if it means bending the spine.

A recent ABC television report says: “Concerns about children’s backpacks are gaining new weight in the wake of the death of a child in Hong Kong, a parents’ crusade for school involvement, and the call for a ban by a leading orthopedic researcher. The issue took a tragic twist in Hong Kong, where earlier this month a nine-year old boy fell 20 floors to death after his heavy backpack pulled him over the safety rail of a building. Officials suspect the bag moved forward as the boy leaned to look at something, pushing him over the railing.”

Although the pressure of such intense education is now bordering on paranoia, some schools have sensibly provided lockers on the premises so that children travel home and back to school with only the day’s work, leaving the rest behind. But this is not a very common practice so lugging these huge bags still is the prevalent option.

What is even more amazing is that schoolbags are sold by underscoring the fact that they are scientifically manufactured to minimise the weight problem. That just goes to show that just about everyone, parents, teachers, the merchandise sellers, are all part of the deal and ignore the hunchback syndrome which is now increasing affecting small children.

There has to be some solution to this problem. It is medical and it is psychological and it is an indictment of the system that has now become so grotesque it is robbing children of the pleasures of childhood.

Doesn’t anybody feel any guilt?

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