A Florida mom shared a heartbreaking photo on Facebook of her 3-year-old lying in anguish in a waist-to-ankle cast after breaking his leg at a trampoline park. Alongside the picture, which has been shared more than 275,000 times, the mom posted a warning to other parents: “Toddlers should be no where near trampolines.”
I, too, have a 3-year-old. And a playroom with a mini-trampoline. So of course I’m panic-wondering: Do I need to get rid of it? Should I stop letting my kids go to birthday parties at the local trampoline park? Is the fact that I’m wondering these things proof that I’m an overprotective, killjoy parent? Compelling research suggests that kids fare better when they take physical risks. And so far, my kids haven’t gotten so much as a bruise. Where in the risk-benefit balance do trampolines fit?
So I did some digging. Turns out it’s really hard to quantify the risk trampolines pose—I’ll explain why in a bit—yet most pediatricians and orthopedists agree: Trampolines are a terrible idea for young kids and not so great for older ones, either. I was pretty shocked to learn that, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, children under 6 should never jump on trampolines. The American Academy of Pediatrics is even more conservative: It “strongly discourages” recreational trampoline use at all ages.
Here’s the thing with trampolines. Kids get pitched into the air and then free fall. If they land on their feet in the center of the trampoline mat, great. But they can also land on the metal springs, on the hard frame, or on the ground. They can land on their arms, their ankles, their heads, and on other kids.
But what’s the likelihood that your kid is going to get hurt? That’s a lot harder to figure out. For one thing, we don’t have good data on how many kids jump on trampolines and how frequently, which is crucial to answering the question. Using data from a national sample of hospitals, the Consumer Product Safety Commission devises national estimates of how many product-related injuries result in emergency room visits. It estimated that among kids under 18, there were 103,512 ER visits in 2016 due to trampoline accidents. That sounds like a lot, and it is. But that number doesn’t tell you anything about how likely it is that one particular kid will end up in the ER after jumping on a trampoline for, say, half an hour—to get there, we’d need to know how much exposure kids have to trampolines. If 20 million kids each jumped on trampolines for two hours a day and there were 103,512 trampoline-induced ER visits, that would be less concerning than if only 1 million kids jumped, and only for a few minutes here and there, yet this infrequent use still resulted in 103,512 ER trips.
What we can do to informally estimate the risk, though, is to compare the number of ER visits incited by trampolines with the number caused by other products and then make some inferences. For instance, 80,831 ER visits in 2016 were due to injuries from the use of playground climbing equipment, according to the CPSC. That’s nearly 23,000 fewer than from trampolines. I don’t have any data on this, but I suspect that American kids collectively spend a lot more time climbing on playgrounds than they do jumping on trampolines. Hell, my 6-year-old probably spends 90 minutes a week climbing on playgrounds and five minutes a week jumping on a trampoline, and we actually own a trampoline. So it’s not a stretch to deduce that trampolines are far more dangerous per hour of use.
To make things worse, trampoline injuries tend to be more severe than injuries caused by other notably dangerous activities. When the Canadian Hospitals Injury Reporting and Prevention Program compared the proportion of injuries caused by various activities that resulted in hospital admission, they found that trampolining ranked second only after downhill skiing: 12.4 percent of trampoline injuries led to hospital admissions compared with 12.9 percent of skiing injuries. Among the activities that were ranked as less dangerous in this regard than trampolining: snowboarding, bicycling, sledding, skateboarding, ice hockey, and football. (In fact, football injuries were four times less likely to lead to hospitalization as trampoline injuries.) Jennifer Weiss, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon based in Los Angeles and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, put it to me this way: “Trampoline injuries are one of the most common reasons that we see people in our orthopedic clinic.” If you’re wondering whether trampolines have gotten safer since you were a kid, the answer unfortunately seems to be no. Although trampoline standards were tightened in the ’90s, leading to more widespread use of spring and frame safety pads as well as boundary nets, a 2010 study found that these changes hadn’t led to fewer injuries and concluded that “whatever has been done is not yet working.”
There’s obviously a big difference between outdoor trampolines, from which kids can easily fall onto the ground, and indoor trampoline parks, where trampolines are connected to prevent such falls. But research suggests that these parks incite a lot of injuries, too. In a 2016 study, researchers compared the number of trampoline injuries recorded by the CSPC that took place at home versus at trampoline parks. They found that while far more kids get hurt on trampolines at home—probably in part because kids spend more time trampolining at home—the number of ER-worthy injuries that happened at parks rose almost twelvefold, from 581 in 2010 to 6,932 in 2014, as trampoline parks became much more popular. (According to the International Association of Trampoline Parks, there were only about 40 trampoline parks worldwide in 2011 and as many as 550 by the end of 2015.) The types of injuries that afflict kids at home versus in these parks differ, too: Kids at home tend to sustain more head injuries than kids in parks do, while kids at parks tend to suffer more lower-body injuries, including broken bones and sprains. Indeed, “almost half of the injuries in kids under 6 were fractures,” explains study author Kathryn Kasmire, a pediatric emergency medicine physician at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. There’s even a type of fracture doctors call “trampoline ankle.”
What about mini-trampolines like the one my kids use? There’s no question they are safer than the big contraptions—very few injuries end up being serious—but Weiss warns that their seeming innocuousness can itself be a problem because mini-trampoline jumping tends to be poorly supervised by parents (yep, guilty), and jumpers also tend to be younger (my 3-year-old loves it). And there’s no evidence either way about whether those handles make them safer. Young kids are especially at risk using trampolines of any type because their balance and body awareness is so terrible. My youngest walks into a wall at least twice a day, so why would I think she’d be fine jumping on an uneven elastic surface?
Now for a little good news: Setting some ground rules should minimize your kids’ risk of injury. First, don’t let kids under 6 jump, as they are most likely to get hurt. Second, don’t let more than one kid jump at a time. I know, what a buzzkill, but three-quarters of trampoline injuries happen when more than one person jumps simultaneously. Little kids who jump with big kids or adults are especially at risk—in fact, they’re a whopping 14 times more likely than the bigger jumpers to get hurt. That’s because they can be easily smooshed in a collision; because they can be projected so high (remember double bounces as a kid when you jumped with someone else?); and because if a little kid happens to land on the trampoline when the mat has recoiled upward due to another person’s jump, there is “significant upward impaction force applied to the descending child’s legs” as one study explains—which in wee ones can lead to injuries (including broken legs). Other risky maneuvers that are best avoided: flips and somersaults, which according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, are “the most common causes of permanent and devastating cervical spine injuries.” If you’re surprised by all this, you’re not alone. Fewer than 1 in 5 parents recently surveyed knew that kids under 6 shouldn’t use trampolines, while less than half knew that multiple kids should never jump at the same time, according to a study that will soon be published in the journal Academic Pediatrics.
If your take on all this is Screw it, I’m still going to let my kid jump on trampolines, I get it. Weiss, the orthopedic surgeon, admitted to me over the phone that she sometimes lets her kids jump. I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do about the trampoline sitting ominously my kids’ playroom. They love it, and I want my kids to have fun and stay active. The point of this article is not to scare you into dumping your trampoline in the garbage; the point is to provide you with facts so that whatever decision you make will be informed, and so that you can minimize the danger by setting a few guidelines if you want. It can be well worth it to let your children take risks—as long as you know enough about what those risks are.
Melinda Wenner Moyer is a science writer based in New York’s Hudson Valley and is Slate’s science-based parenting columnist. Her book "How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t As*holes" will be published in 2021.