Children should be encouraged to carry schoolbags to and from school despite concerns among parents over links to back pain, according to an assistant professor at Trinity College Dublin.
Dr Sara Dockrell, who is also a physiotherapist, said there is considerable inconsistency in research linking back pain among children to carrying schoolbags.
However, she said sedentary lifestyles among children were a major issue and carrying a bag should be encouraged as it is a form of exercise.
"Walking to and from school while carrying a schoolbag could count as moderate activity and therefore it should be encouraged, and not discouraged," she said, in a statement to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Children.
“Not carrying a schoolbag could be seen to be a barrier to physical activity and may deny children the benefits of daily resistance exercise as they travel to and from school.”
Dr Dockrell said carrying a well-designed and correctly fitted backpack over both shoulders has been accepted as the safest way to carry a schoolbag.
She said any adverse effects could be minimised by using a bag with a padded back and hip strap, if possible, with the heaviest items placed close to a child’s back.
Research among parent groups at primary level suggests the weight of schoolbags is one of their biggest concerns.
Committee chairman Jim Daly TD said that while concerns over schoolbags have been debated over the years, there has been little serious action taken to bring about effective change.
Guidelines were produced following an expert working group in 1998, but they said these were now complicated by growing levels of childhood obesity. “These guidelines, however, are not achieving the desired result and we must now examine why this is the case and what can be done,” he said.
“We will meet again on the matter next month with the aim of identifying how best to bring about this change, be it regulation or legislation perhaps, and set out our plan to agree positive action on the matter.”
The National Parent’s Council said an online survey it conducted last week attracted more than 3,000 responses within a four-day period.
It called for a full review of the number of schoolbooks needed for effective teaching and learning.
The council's post-primary group also expressed concern and pointed to guidelines in the United States which limit schoolbag weights to between 10 and 20 per net of a student's body weight.
Dr Dockrell, however, said there was no merit in guidelines based solely on the weight of the schoolbag given the changing pattern of obesity in children.