Various stake-holders and health experts give their take on the age-old problem of heavy school bags.
The sun was barely up, and neither was little Andy, who was seen nodding off to sleep as his mother pulled up alongside the school gate.
Still groggy, Andy was reluctant to leave the comfort of his car, but a few words from his mother, who had to open his door, achieved the effect no alarm clock could.
“Wake up, mommy has to rush for an important meeting,” she said, as her seven-year-old son sluggishly got out. “Carry your own bag today. I’m in a hurry.”
Andy was suddenly wide awake, and his muted protests concerning the heavy load were to no avail as his mother helped him put on his backpack before speeding off.
Muttering, Andy trudged away, slouching and struggling with his heavy backpack. Andy’s morning may have been spoilt, but in truth, he was one of the lucky ones as most children carry their own bags on a daily basis.
The issue of heavy school bags is a perennial problem, and many parents are less than impressed. A number have expressed their discontent by writing to StarEducation, and those quizzed outside the school gates were equally vocal.
“There are too many periods in a day,” said Leon Loke. “My daughter in Year Three carries more than 5kg everyday and she only weighs 19kg.
“This should not be the way, as carrying such a heavy load is bad for her health.”
In support of Loke’s outburst, experts and health boards say that a backpack should weigh between 10 and 15% of a child’s body weight.
So, hypothetically, a child who weighs 40kg should carry between 4 and 6kg of books in his or her backpack.
However, such is not the case in Malaysia, and parents became even more concerned when Backpack Syndrome – complications like poor posture and muscle aches as the result of carrying heavy backpacks – was explained to them.
Some even used themselves – or their spouses – as living examples.
Pointing at her husband Syahril Abdul Jalil, Aniza Anis Sallihudin said that he did not have the right posture and slouched as the result of carrying too much weight in his younger years.
“I don’t want my seven-year-old daughter Sofea to run the same risk,” she said.
“She may not be required to stand 30-40 minutes on a bus, but I’d rather be on the safe side.”
When truth and myth collide
A few even expressed their belief that carrying heavy backpacks could lead to their children developing scoliosis – a disorder that causes an abnormal curve of the spine.
Literally meaning “crooked condition” in Greek, scoliosis results in a spine that looks like an ‘S’ curve, rather than a straight line, from an X-ray rear view.
However, a Bernama report in June quoted Deputy Health Minister Datuk Rosnah Abdul Rashid Shirlin saying that there was no association between the occurrence of scoliosis and heavy school bags.
It was also mentioned that 13,340 Year Six pupils in Selangor, Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya and Kuala Terengganu were screened for the medical condition in 2008 and 2009, but only six developed the disorder.
Further checks with International Medical University (IMU) chiropractic centre head Dr George Le Beau and sports medicine specialist Dr William Chan Liang Wah confirmed this.
“Scoliosis is pathological in nature as we are talking about an actual deformity of the spinal vertebrae,” said Dr Le Beau, who has over 38 years experience in the chiropractic field.
“Anomalies at birth, such as having one leg shorter than the other or a crooked vertebrae, lead to scoliosis, and not heavy school bags.”
Dr Chan, who has run the Sports Backcare clinic in Subang Jaya for over a decade, agreed and added that scoliosis could develop as a secondary symptom of other conditions – such as cerebral palsy – that cannot be linked to school bags.
Although scoliosis is out of the question, parents still have their fair share of worries as carrying heavy backpacks could result in health complications.
Dr Chan said that heavy loads, and incorrect lifting and carrying techniques, could result in muscular skeletal injuries to a student’s neck, shoulders and back.
“These injuries come in the form of muscle strains, tendonitis, tendon sprain, disc injuries, the rounding of the shoulders, and a distortion of the natural curve of one’s spine,” he said.
“Carrying heavy loads may also transfer stress to the knees and hip joints, and although findings have not been substantial, this could lead to adverse effects on growing bone growth plates.”
He added that parents should be on the lookout for warning signs like neck, shoulder and back aches, as well as headaches, stiffness and fatigue.
And parents have to ensure that their children adhere to the proper technique of lifting and carrying their bags.
However, this may not be enough as Dr Le Beau feels that many – especially male students – would still veer away from guidelines.
“Children will be children, and peer pressure dictates that they should look cool,” he said with a chuckle.
“Carrying a backpack with one shoulder is one way of doing so.
“Many don’t think about future consequences, and lifting a heavy load with one shoulder could lead to one side of the body becoming overdeveloped.
“Now, this will only become apparent over time, and it is hardly cool as it does not look good.”
Dr Le Beau added that not every health risk could be detected in the short run, and more serious cases could result in bones going out of alignment, long term sprains or even disc ruptures later in life.
Several IMU students have already sought his help to alleviate their severe back pains, and many of them have a long history of carrying heavy backpacks – sometimes in the incorrect fashion.
Enter the trolley
And if Dr Le Beau had his way, backpacks would be replaced by trolley bags.
Sharing a little bit of history, he said that the idea of trolley bags first came about when airline industry staff sustained numerous injuries as the result of lifting heavy loads.
“Trolley bags revolutionised the travel industry, and they could do so to the school scene,” he said, before adding that it would be tricky for young students to lift a trolley bag up a stairway.
Other parents seem to have gotten wind of this, and more students now pull such bags.
“My youngest child is in Year One, and I got him a trolley bag for health and comfort reasons,” said Sukhbit Kaur, a mother of three.
“His classes are on the ground floor, so using a trolley bag is ideal. He will switch to a backpack when he’s older, as older students have their classes on the second and third floor.”
Interestingly, not every parent shares the same sentiment, and some speak out in the name of fashion – and discipline.
“Trolley bags are just not cool and I prefer my children to wear backpacks,” said Karen Puah, a mother of two. “You will only see my daughter, Chloe, with fashionable surfer backpacks.
“Yes, bags may be heavy, but the children should not whinge and just get used to it. I try not to carry her bag for her.”
And the children have plenty to say about this too.
Hassan, a Year Two student at SK Taman Desa, said that he ditched his trolley bag after his friends ridiculed him for a semester. Still, it took quite a bit of persuasion before his parents relented.
“I asked for a backpack, but my parents said a trolley bag was better for my health,” he said. “So I secretly spoilt the wheels of my trolley bag until my parents bought me a backpack.”
Although opinions are divided, trolley bags look set to become a more permanent feature in schools. But if you think that this circumvents the problem, think again.
A visit to a Chinese primary school in USJ, Selangor, showed that trolley bags were not exactly the solution, but part of a greater problem.
And this is because students carry not one, but two bags. Shouldering their backpacks and wheeling their rollers, many a student was encumbered by their heavy loads.
Their tough juggling act was made harder by their small frames and naturally, the lower primary pupils had the worst of it.
When quizzed for other alternatives, many parents said that the implementation of a locker system might be the great leap forward.
The rationale was that students would only bring the necessary books home, leaving the rest in their lockers for easy access when required.
However, they acknowledged that issues like space and financial constraints had to be overcome before the system could be implemented nationwide.
Others, however, were less enthusiastic and a few spoke from experience.
National Union of the Teaching Profession secretary-general Lok Yim Pheng said that the locker system was actually implemented as a pilot test many years ago, but failed to achieve its desired effect.
“The locker system was implemented at various primary schools in Malaysia, but the results showed that it did little or no help,” she said.
“Parents complained that their children did not bring their books back to revise, leaving them in the lockers instead. This was common amongst the younger students, who, perhaps, were not mature enough to prioritise.”
Lok added that the trouble of maintaining the lockers led to the initiative’s end.
Interestingly, Dr Le Beau points out that the locker system is going out of fashion in the United States – the country that made it the staple feature for schools.
“Vandalism can get pretty bad, and more pressing issues like locker theft, as well as the storage of weapons and drugs in lockers have not gone down well,” he said.
Despite this, some parents still feel that lockers should be given another trial run, and Syahril believes that the abuse of lockers will not be a prevalent problem in Malaysia.
“We have Asian values embedded in us, and what happens in the West need not necessarily happen here,” he said.
“I believe it would work if we teach young children how to use the locker system properly.”
He added that there were problems everywhere and if policy makers kept getting put off by them, nothing would get done.
Opting to keep every option open, housewife Lin Hussain advocates practical and adaptable measures.
And she has planned ahead for her Year Two daughter Mia, who will soon make a transition from trolley bag to backpack, as her classes will be relocated to the first floor.
“If I feel Mia’s backpack is too heavy, I will get her book binders so she can carry some of the books,” she said.
“She may have to carry more things, but at least her back will be straight. I guess the problem of heavy school bags will continue as long as children are required to carry books.”
But could this change in the age of digitalisation? Syahril and SK Bukit Damansara parent-teacher association (PTA) president Areeff Khalid certainly think so.
However, they feel it may take a while to get there.
“Everyone is talking about digitalisation, but instead of going paperless – conserving the environment in the process – students are still using books and paper,” said Syahril.
“I believe Malaysia has the means to revamp our education system. We don’t always have to wait for the Westerners or the Japanese to take the lead.”
Equally enthusiastic, Areeff said that digitalisation was probably the only way the age-old problem of heavy school bags could be put to rest.
However, he added that parents had to play a big part in any nationwide effort to go digital in schools.
“PTAs could help schools raise funds through efforts like car boot sales,” he said. “With proper mobilisation, PTAs could even sponsor computers to the schools.
“I believe that good things require a lot of effort, and parents should be prepared to assist any such endeavour.
“Let’s hope no one complains of heavy laptops or e-readers in the future.”
All about backpacks
Despite being linked to numerous health risks – and the availability of trolley bags – backpacks should remain as the prime pick for years to come.
With that, chiropractor Dr George Le Beau and sports medicine specialist Dr William Chan Liang Wah opine that parents and children should be aware of the ideal type of backpacks, the correct way of packing one and the proper way of carrying one.
The right design
One with proper ergonomic design to prevent repetitive strain injuries.
Most branded backpacks fit the bill with multiple compartments, adjustable shoulder straps, and plenty of foam and padding, but it must be noted that such bags are almost always more expensive.
One that fits a child’s body size. Many young students are carrying bags that are “too big” for them. Bigger does not necessarily mean better.
Choose a backpack with a moulded frame and an adjustable hip strap so that the weight of the filled backpack will rest on a child’s pelvis, instead of his or her shoulders and spine.
How to pack
The weight of a filled backpack should not be more than 15% of a child’s body weight.
Pack the heaviest or bigger books closer to the child’s back. The child’s centre of gravity is negatively affected if this is not done, and this could result in back strains and poor posture.
Make sure that the bag is compact, and that items do not go out of place during movement, as this will affect the child’s centre of gravity.
Clear out any unneeded items. Many students employ a “just in case” policy by bringing everything in case they forget something.
Ensure that the weight is evenly distributed as young students should not shoulder too much weight on one side of the body.
The way to lift and carry
Use both shoulder straps and ensure that the backpack falls no lower than two or three inches above a child’s waist.
When fitted correctly, the backpack should hug the child’s back and not hang off the shoulders.
One should lift a backpack with a straight back, using the thigh muscles. Both hands should be used to lift the backpack.
A child leaning over indicates that a bag is either too heavy, wrongly packed, incorrectly fitted or a combination of the above factors.
The child complains of aches. Children will listen to their bodies. - By Richard Lim