Inside students' heavy backpacks, why it's too much and how to help

Story highlights

  • CNN asked dozens of students to share what's inside their backpacks
  • Occupational therapist: A backpack should weigh no more than 10% of a child's body weight

(CNN)

When they head off to school every morning, the students of today need their laptops and tablets and a charger for both. Yes, they still have to bring books for calculus, history, science and French.
    Notebooks? Check. Binders, too, and agendas and planners and bundles of sharpened pencils and fresh pens. Oh, and a book for pleasure -- Harry Potter is still popular, if weighty.
    They can't leave behind their swimsuit for gym class, their shoes for cheerleading, their sweats for football, or their French horns or cellos. Don't forget snacks. Cookies, crackers, an apple. Lots of water bottles.
    Then there's all the little stuff that's buried at the bottom, just in case. Hairbrushes. Flashlights. Chess pieces. A ball to toss around. An origami frog, just because it's awesome.
    Noah, third grade, 8.9 pounds
    Dozens of students in Atlanta opened their backpacks to CNN to reveal: What's really inside those big, heavy backpacks, anyway?
    None of this surprises Karen Jacobs, a clinical professor in occupational therapy at Boston University. Backpacks become a "portable life support system" filled with supplies and goodies students probably won't need that day, but feel they must carry anyway, she said. The general rule: Backpacks should weigh no more than 10% of a child's weight. She can spot changes in students' postures in any school hallway.
    "They look like turtles; they're walking forward, the posture changed," said Jacobs, who is past president of the American Occupational Therapy Association, which touts a backpack awareness day as children head back to school every fall. "Some will complain they have headaches, pain in the shoulders, neck, backs."
    In the short-term, students might notice aches and pains, but most won't realize that backpacks could be to blame. Few students told CNN their backpacks were too heavy, although most admitted they sometimes struggle to lift them, and it can be uncomfortable to carry them for more than a few minutes.
    Long-term, children and teens with back problems are more likely to become adults with back problems, Jacobs said. More research is needed to uncover whether heavy backpacks are causing other lasting effects or making people shorter, though, she said.
    One small 2010 study of eight children published in the journal Spine found that heavier loads compressed their spines. A much larger 2012 study published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood did not see significant effects on the spines of 1,400 students who carried backpacks. Another study, published in BioMed Research International in August, studied 109 7-year-olds in Poland. It found that backpacks heavier than 10% of a child's body weight can cause the back to lean one way or another, and that lighter backpacks could ease the strain on their spines.
    In all cases, researchers found that too-heavy backpacks can leave children in pain.
    So, what's inside those bags?

    The many, many things they carried

    Not ever