Several recent trends combined with long hours in crowded, germy classrooms can put kids at risk for a wide range of problems, from back pain to nerve injuries, infections, obesity, and bullying. In fact, 40 percent of kids ages 5 to 17 get hurt or sick at school each year.
The good news, however, is that simple steps can help protect your child’s health. Here are the health hazards to watch for and how to prevent them.
Problem: Overloaded backpacks cause back pain
A 2003 study of 1122 backpack users aged 12-18 showed that almost 75 percent suffered from back pain.
Solution: Weigh your child’s backpack—and lighten the load. Research from theChildren’s Orthopaedic Center shows that back pain is reduced when children carry lighter backpacks, and use school lockers, so encourage your children to drop off books they don’t need in their lockers between classes. Make sure that your kid’s backpack doesn’t exceed 10-15 percent of his or her bodyweight: they may need to leave some items at home.
The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons also recommends that students use both shoulder straps so that the weight is distributed evenly. And the National Safety Council recommends padded backpacks with compression straps, in addition to looking out for signs that a backpack is too heavy, such as red marks, pain, tingling or numbness, postural changes and difficulty putting on or taking off the backpack.
Problem: Too much time parked in a chair
According to a 2006 School Health Policies and Programs Study cited by the CDC, only 3.8 percent of elementary schools, 7.9 percent of middle schools and 2.1 percent of high schools provided daily physical education or its equivalent for the entire school year for students in all grades.
There’s a new recognition that “sitting disease”—a deadly epidemic of health problems linked to a sedentary lifestyle, including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease—can be as dangerous to kids and adults as smoking.
Solution: The CDC recommends at least an hour of physical activity for children and adolescents. Make sure your kids are supplementing the exercise they’re getting—or not getting--at school by playing outdoors after classes let out. As I recently reported, fun in the sun improves everything from kids’ vitamin D levels to their weight, mental health and even vision.
Problem: Crowded, germy classrooms
A 2010 study in the Journal of Infectious Diseases linked the start of school (and the two weeks following) with a large spike in flu infections. Kids lose 60 million school days a year to flu and colds alone.
Solution: Common-sense precautions, such as making sure your kids wash their hands with soap and water, and avoid touching their mouth, nose and eyes. Also tuck tissues and hand sanitizer in their backpacks. A yearly flu vaccine can also be helpful.
Problem: Weight gain
Although many schools are banning sodas from vending machines, sugary sports drinks are still widely available. As I’ve reported previously, sports drinks are not necessary for electrolyte replenishment and, in fact, lead to childhood obesity as well as tooth decay.
Solution: Although sports drinks may be available in the vending machine, encourage kids to stick to water. And pack a healthy bag lunch rather opting for cafeteria meals where ketchup may be counted as a "vegetable".
Problem: A rise in cyberbullying
72 percent of students reported at least one incident of cyberbullying, according to a study published in the Journal of School Health. These incidents, which typically involved name-calling and insults through instant messages or social media have led to increased social anxiety.
Solutions: 90 percent of students stated they didn’t report the cyberbullying to an adult, and “only a minority of participants had used digital tools to prevent online incidents,” the study authors wrote. Talk to your children about cyberbullying, so that they’re comfortable to discuss it with you or another adult if it happens to them. Also, make sure they know how to prevent unwanted contact electronically—such as blocking certain users, and reporting the harassment to the content provider. The Cyberbullying Resource Center further recommends saving evidence of cyberbullying, and contacting the police if you feel your child is in danger.
Problem: Sleep deprivation
Adolescents average as much as two hours less sleep per night during the school year, according to a 2005 study published in Pediatrics. Skimping on slumber has also been been linked to lead to higher rates of teen driving accidents on school days.
Solutions: Help your children set a schedule that allows them to complete all of their homework in the afternoon, so that they’re not staying up late finishing it at the last minute. The National Sleep Foundation also recommends avoiding eating, drinking, exercising, phone and computer use and watching television for the last few hours before bed, replacing them with quiet, calm activities instead.
School-related stress affects 2 out of 3 students, according to research by Mollie Galloway and Dr. Denise Pope, involving more than 10,000 middle school and high school students. The top source of stress reported was schoolwork, including projects and papers, homework, tests, deadlines and grades.
“Students who spent the most hours on homework each night experienced more stress-related physical symptoms and poorer mental health than the other groups,” the study authors wrote. And those who spent the most time on homework were more likely to drop out of hobbies or activities, gain weight and suffer from exhaustion and other physical symptoms of stress.
Solutions: Provide homework assistance if necessary and set a schedule so that kids aren’t struggling with assignments for longer than necessary. A balanced diet, getting enough sleep and more exercise can also help children cope with the tension in their lives.