Living Well: Back-to-school tips from Indiana University
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Backpacks and pain
Binge drinking on college campuses -- it's about fear, not freedom
A "tragic" and unnecessary health hazard in schools nationwide -- pesticides
Picking a password that keeps the cybercrooks guessing
When schoolwork becomes a pain. Heavy backpacks and bags have been known to cause pain and fatigue in children and adults. While these conditions should be a concern for parents and students alike, healthcare professionals increasingly are concerned about the role these bags play in the development of more serious conditions, such as chronic back pain and functional scoliosis, which is caused when the spine becomes twisted because one shoulder muscle is stronger than the other. "A load of books or materials, distributed improperly or unevenly, day after day, is indeed going to cause stress to a growing spinal column and back," said Kevin Slates, an occupational and environmental health expert at Indiana University Bloomington. "The old adage, 'As the twig is bent, so grows the tree,' comes to mind. We are seeing a growing concern about the improper use of backpacks and the relatively scarce amount of preventive information available to young people." The Consumer Products Safety Commission estimates that 4,928 emergency room visits each year result from injuries related to book bags and back carriers. "Students attending primary and secondary schools are more susceptible to these disorders because their bodies are developing faster," Slates said. "Females are even more susceptible because of the physiological demands on their bodies. But body mass and the weight of the back pack plays a role. If she weighs 120 pounds and is carrying a 25-pound backpack, it places a huge burden on her musculoskeletal system."
Slates, a clinical assistant professor in IUB's Department of Applied Health Science, offers these suggestions and considerations:
- Pain and fatigue are, well, a pain. In Slates' preliminary study of the relationship between backpacks and health conditions, 55.3 percent of the college-age respondents reported experiencing pain from carrying their bags, with a higher percentage of women (66.9 percent), reporting such pain.
- Parents, take note. Parents should be aware of the weight of their children's backpacks and encourage them to store some of their books and belongings in lockers.
- Find a locker. University students should look into the use of temporary lockers on campus so they do not have to carry books for all of their classes all day. Universities should consider placing day lockers throughout campus to facilitate this.
- Lighten the load. Healthcare professionals suggest keeping backpack weight below 15 percent to 20 percent of the carrier's body weight.
- Strategic loading. Waists, Slates says, are designed to carry more weight than shoulders. Waist and chest straps help keep backpack weight as close to the body as possible, minimizing problems by distributing the weight more evenly across the body.
- Options. Slates does not recommend one model over another, but he said parents and students should know they have options -- backpacks come in different shapes and sizes, including backpacks with one strap and messenger bags. He encourages people to use both straps on the packs that have two straps, however, because two straps cut the physiological burden in half by distributing weight more evenly. He also suggests moving the weight around to avoid overuse on particular muscles.
Last spring, Slates and members of the American Society of Safety Engineers began collecting data for the study by weighing backpacks and talking with students at bus stops on the IU Bloomington campus. Slates plans to expand his sample through next spring. In his preliminary findings, the students who reported experiencing pain reported having it in multiple areas, including the neck, shoulders and upper and lower back. Graduate students had the heaviest packs, weighing in at 12 pounds, 2 ounces on average. Male students' bags averaged 11 pounds, 10 ounces, with female students' bags averaging 1 pound, 2 ounces less. The heaviest bag recorded weighed 25 pounds, 6 ounces. The study examines the use of traditional double-strap backpacks and the newer one-strap bags and messenger bags. The study should shed some light on whether any of these styles result in less pain.
Binge drinking on college campuses: A matter of fear, not freedom. Teaching assistants, typically graduate students hired to help undergrads with their courses, are staples on college campuses. Indiana University shyness expert Bernardo J. Carducci said social assistants, people hired to help new students with their conversation IQ and social skills, should become staples, as well. New students, said Carducci, director of the Shyness Research Institute at IU Southeast, are no different than the estimated 40 percent of the population that is shy. The transition to college, however, can exacerbate this vulnerability, so students turn to an easy conversation-maker -- booze. "Usually universities have organizers, not facilitators," Carducci said. "You bring these people together, but you don't help them connect. You don't have people who go around and say, 'Steve, this is Rachel.' You need to do this at a much more personal level. That's what social facilitators at keggers do. They're walking around handing you drinks." Carducci says binge drinking is the fruit of the fear and anxiety new students can experience, not the result of them enjoying their new-found independence. "What this really is all about is the process of transition, the process of change," Carducci said. "Change brings uncertainty. Uncertainty brings anxiety. They drink out of fear. They drink out of anxiety. They drink out of loneliness. They don't talk about how afraid they are because they think everyone will think they're a weenie. So, they conform. They talk about drinking -- where did they go, what did they do, where are they going this week. It gives students a topic of conversation. What begins to happen is they drink to get accepted."
Carducci offers the following suggestions:
- Teach them to make connections. Carducci, a psychology professor and author of The Pocket Guide to Making Successful Small Talk: How to Talk to Anyone Anytime Anywhere About Anything, said new students often have low levels of conversation intelligence. Universities should consider organizing friendship circles, where they bring students together on a regular basis, or including class sections that help students develop conversational skills and other social skills. If the university organizes a freshman picnic, for example, it needs to go the extra mile by having people mingle and make introductions.
- A rational appeal. University administrators need to acknowledge the dynamic by letting students know the root of their drinking is in loneliness, fear and anxiety. "Tell them you know they're drinking because they want to be liked and accepted. Don't make it a moral or emotional appeal."
- Reality check. Students have a drinking problem if they drink alcohol to feel relaxed at social functions or comfortable dancing or talking with others or if they pre-drink -- drink before they go to social functions so they "feel" more relaxed and comfortable when they arrive.
- Avoid drinking games. Drinking games might look fun, but they are designed to get drinkers drunk as quickly as possible. When people are drunk, they are easier to control and become more susceptible to everything from theft to sexual assault to alcohol poisoning, which can be fatal.
- Lonely? Find people with similar interests. Student groups focusing on a wide range of interests can be found on university campuses, providing students with a way to indulge their hobbies and interests while meeting similarly minded people.
- Volunteer. Students focus less on their own challenges with their transition to school when they focus on the needs of others. Volunteering puts students in a low stress situation because typically it's their time that is desired, not special skills. It lets them meet other people with similar interests.
- Get a job. Part-time jobs can help students with school by making them more organized and helping them meet people. Carducci says working up to 20 hours a week should not hurt grades. If the job is on campus, it can provide students with contacts and experience in areas related to their major.
- Be a host to humanity. Take the initiative by talking to people in the same boat -- new students. Introduce people. "It all boils down to taking the attention off of yourself and getting involved in the lives of others," Carducci said.
- Parents, think "inoculation." Parents shouldn't be afraid of talking to their children about limited alcohol consumption and about the anxiety and fear they could experience when they begin college. Let them know everyone feels that way and that they should not confuse drinking with bravado, Carducci said. "It's like having the drug and the sex talk -- this is what's likely to happen to you."
A "tragic" health hazard. Pesticides in schools are a pervasive, unnecessary health hazard, said Marc Lame, an entomologist and professor in Indiana University's School of Public and Environmental Affairs. "Over 80 percent of schools in America are applying pesticides on a regular basis, whether they have a pest problem or not," he said. "This is tragic not only because of the well-documented link between pesticides and health problems in children, such as asthma and neurological disorders, but also because pesticides generally do not work in a preventive manner in the school environment. Applying pesticides does not prevent pests from coming in, so using them when pests are not present does nothing other than expose children and staff to toxic chemicals."
- Background: The most widely used insecticides are nerve poisons, which cause nerves to fire in an uncontrolled manner and disrupt endocrine (hormone) systems, Lame said. Prolonged exposure to these chemicals can result in similar effects on the human nervous system, with symptoms ranging from vomiting to severe breathing problems. Although research is limited, these endocrine disrupting pesticides are suspected in problems ranging from ADHD to autism to infertility, Lame said. Exposure during childhood carries the greatest risk. "The thing to remember is that it is not just a question of children being smaller than adults and getting more exposure pound-for-pound. The even more serious issue is that their nervous systems are still developing, so they are especially susceptible to nerve poisons," he said.
- Solution: Lame said pest problems are better managed with an integrated approach that involves recognition and remediation of conditions that attract pests or allow pests to enter facilities. "It's common sense pro-action rather than toxic reaction," he said. Lame serves as a consultant for schools and environmental health agencies around the country, helping them implement such programs through a process known as Integrated Pest Management (IPM). He is also the author of a book on pest management in schools, A Worm in the Teacher's Apple: Protecting America's School Children from Pests and Pesticides (Authorhouse, 2005).
More information on IPM is available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/factsheets/ipm.htm.
Passwords are a piece of cake -- for cybercrooks. Choosing a good password is one of the many choices students make as they head to college, and it's a decision that should not be taken lightly, says David Ripley, researcher at the Pervasive Technology Labs' Advanced Network Management Lab at Indiana University Bloomington. What really makes a password difficult -- or easy -- for someone else to figure out? A computer cracker or identity thief will never know the name of your favorite great-aunt's cousin's dog -- so that's a good password, right? "Sadly, that's not true," said Ripley. "Modern-day bad guys don't bother trying to guess your password themselves; they have computers do it for them." Using special programs and huge lists of words, these cybercrooks try millions of different words -- long words, short words and foreign words. They can try every word in every dictionary, in every language on Earth; every dog's and cat's and goldfish's name imaginable. They try all those words with dIffErenT cApITaLiZation, and all kinds of oth3r vArati0ns! They'll keep guessing for hours, or even days -- the program doing the guessing never gets tired or bored. "A random string of numbers and letters makes the best password," says Ripley, "Unfortunately those are very difficult passwords for most people to remember."
Ripley offers these tips on choosing and protecting a password:
- Long and complicated isn't so hard. Think of a phrase that will be easy for you to remember; use the first letter of each word to make a new word, leaving in the punctuation, capitalization and any numbers. Here's an example: "My first cat was named Fluffy. He was orange, with stripes. He only had 3 legs!" Taking the first letter of each word makes "MfcwnF.Hwo,ws.Hoh3l!"…which would be a really good password. Much better than just using the word "Fluffy."
- Longer the better. In general, choose a longer password, rather than a shorter one.
- Since you might forget ... Don't write passwords on a sticky note and leave them on your monitor or near your computer. And definitely don't keep your password in a text file on your computer as crackers can potentially access them. However, keeping a list of your passwords in an envelope in a safety deposit box, home safe, or other secure location away from the computer can be a good idea, just in case of an emergency.
EDITORS: This monthly tip sheet is based on Indiana University faculty research, teaching and service. "Living Well Through Healthy Lifestyles" is the guiding philosophy of IU Bloomington's School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation. In keeping with that philosophy, this tip sheet offers information related to both physical and mental well-being. Faculty in other IU schools and departments also contribute their expertise in this area.