Parenting: teens

Is heavy school bag or too much screen time giving daughter a bad back?

Developing good posture is crucial for children, and with heavy school bags to carry and smartphones and tablets taking up most of their free time, parents have to be extra careful about a child’s back and neck

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 October, 2016, 4:47pm
UPDATED : Monday, 24 October, 2016, 4:46pm

Since my daughter started high school a few weeks ago, she has been complaining that her shoulders and back are aching. She walks to school and I’m concerned about the weight of the backpack she carries. She also spends more time crouched over her computer screen doing homework. I’m worried these activities are going to lead to back problems in the future.

Sometimes age-old wisdom comes to the fore. Years ago my grandma used to nag me about two things – looking after my teeth and maintaining a good posture. She insisted on me sitting correctly at the dinner table, and slouching of any sort was not permitted. This was before the compulsive distraction of tablets and laptops. Today, the advice is even more important. A good posture is crucial for future health and avoiding back, neck and shoulder problems in particular.

This generation of children are certainly in danger of falling victim to these ailments.

Both the points you mention in your question could be contributing to your daughter’s aches and pains. The increased homework pressure as students enter high school and their “need” to be on social media, means spending hours a day on a computer. Often children (and adults too) can be seen on a sofa slouching over a tablet on their lap, with their chin almost on their chest or curling up with a smartphone. This can place a strain on the back and neck and can also lead to headaches and a round-shouldered posture. Having experienced a frozen neck after spending many hours writing my own school reports on a laptop, I wouldn’t want to repeat the severe discomfort and months of painful physiotherapy.

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There are positive things your daughter can do to avoid such problems. She should sit on a supportive chair at a desk or table while doing computer-based homework. If she is on a sofa she should try to sit up straight with a cushion to support her head. Limiting social networking or gaming is extremely difficult for parents, but it’s vital as children get totally absorbed and generally don’t stick to time limits. Screen time should only be 30 to 40 minutes maximum before taking a break, not just for the sake of posture but also to avoid eyesight damage.

Your concerns about the weight of school bags is certainly valid these days, especially at secondary school where students have different subjects each day that demand a variety of books, folders and textbooks. On top of that, there can be PE [physical education] kits, food and musical instruments. For those who walk to school every day, the long-term effect on their young backs and shoulder muscles is a concern.

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Make sure your daughter has a high-quality, comfortable backpack that is the right size. Preferably it should have padded, adjustable shoulder straps that are tight enough to carry the bag high on her back so as not to pull or strain and, even better, an adjustable hip strap to help support the weight. She should avoid carrying her schoolbag on one shoulder and avoid satchel-type bags that need to be carried on one side of the body, therefore causing asymmetry in posture.

Your daughter also needs to be highly organised. It’s amazing what you find in a child’s bag if it has not been emptied out for a few days, from old chewing gum to overdue library books. Make sure she checks her timetable so that everything in her bag is necessary for that particular day.

Have a specified shelf at home where she can store books when they are not needed and can easily access them. She should streamline what she has to carry, only taking homework on the day it is due. What can be left in her locker at school? Here in Hong Kong, water bottles are one of the heaviest but most crucial items in a schoolbag. Encourage your daughter to take an empty bottle and fill it once she gets to school.

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Although bags become a child’s “private property” as they get older, you may have to insist that she empties and tidies it regularly. Help her build a routine where she repacks her bag each evening so there is no great rush the next morning and only essential things are packed.

Regular exercise and building good core strength are also important for the health of your daughter’s back and shoulders. Children’s yoga classes are becoming popular and are excellent for posture, strength and flexibility, helping the body to be more resilient against aches and strains. It is important to look after muscles and joints to avoid recurring problems. If her back and shoulder aches persist, speak to your doctor about a possible referral to a chiropractor or physiotherapist.

Julie McGuire is a former Hong Kong primary school teacher