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When I pick up my children’s schoolbags, I can’t remember a time when they were as heavy as they are today. I know I’m not the only parent that is concerned. School bags these days are filled with laptops, textbooks, water bottles, and sports gear – and we ask ourselves, “Is this causing damage to my child’s spine? How much weight is too much?” 

Both national and international research in this area is insufficient – and that’s not the fault of clinicians. Proving that children’s backpacks are too heavy, and that they are causing accelerated disk degeneration or other physical ailments is close to impossible. It would take longitudinal, clinical studies that assess children over a 15–20-year period, following them into adulthood. To isolate symptoms as a cause of heavy backpacks would require a study with an immensely large sample. The terms of a study like this are foundationally unethical, in the sense that children would need to be subjected to unsafe weights to fulfil the study and determine a conclusion. Even if the study were to occur, the results would not be determined until another generation of young Australians has suffered. 

Given that instances of disc degeneration in adults requiring surgery has grown exponentially in the last 20 years, and there are clear obstacles in our ability to test the acceptable weight of backpacks, determining a “safe” body weight to load weight must be prioritised. The American Academy of Paediatrics recommends that a child’s backpack weigh no more than 10%-15% of their body weight, with this precedent backed up by similar workplace recommendations for adults.  

Safe Work Australia National Code of Practice for Manual Handling safety standards require adults of 90kgs on average to carry no more than 16kgs. This equates to around 15% of their body weight, and this standard is in place because evidence shows the risk of back injury increases significantly with objects above this range. A child of 30-35kgs carrying a backpack between 10-12kgs equates to around 30% of their body weight. This is double the Code of Practice. 

The weight that many school children are carrying on their backs is the equivalent of breaking WHS safe carrying limits every day for the better part of a decade. This is compounded by the fact that, unlike adults, children are still developing physically, and so are at far greater risk of causing long-term damage.  

There is a need for urgent intervention in this area to introduce regulations on the upper limit of weight children should be expected to carry. Given the long-term consequences of the issue, this should be legislated and enforced by our schools. Schools will also need to adjust to this change: homework and other at-home studies should not require our kids to carry large textbooks to and from home every day. In an era of e-learning that spans multiple industries, we’re actively reducing the need for physical learning materials like textbooks. Yet this hasn’t applied to schools and, anecdotally, children’s schoolbags are heavier than they’ve ever been.  

As a neurosurgeon and spinal surgeon, as well as a University professor, my recommendation is to introduce regulations limiting the upper weight of what a child should be carrying. This needs to account for:  

  1. Acceptable bodyweight to carrying weight ratio,
  2. The fact that children are still developing, and  
  3. Children will often not wear their bags as instructed. 

Given these factors, my initial recommendation would be that children do not carry more than 10-15% of their own body weight. 

I believe if parents take this as a guide, they will be significantly reducing the likelihood of their child experiencing accelerated disc degeneration. 

When picking a school bag, I recommend also looking for: 

  1. Wide straps, to support the shoulders and prevent the straps from digging in and compromising circulation 
  2. Multiple pockets, to distribute weight more evenly, making sure to pack the heaviest items closest to the back to minimise additional strain  
  3. Tightened straps, so the bag can be allowed to rest close to the waist 

The objective is to allow children to walk normally with a healthy and upright posture, rather than having to adopt a ‘forward head posture’ or unnatural extension because of the weight.