Text heavy: The hidden weight of our paper textbook use

Sabrina Dong

Students file into Redwood on the first day of school like an army of ants. They seem to swarm the hallways, greeting each other enthusiastically after the long summer. In many ways Redwood mirrors the structure of an ant colony, each student going through their day with a purpose and a job: to learn. Much like ants, we communicate with each other, work together to solve problems and carry an obscene amount of weight.

The average high schooler carries a backpack with about 16 to 20 pounds of textbooks in it, according to a 2004 study by the California Board of Education. The backpack weight peaks in 11th grade, when students carry an overall book weight of 20 pounds, 12.7 ounces. This is about 15.4 percent of the average male weight and about 17.6 percent of the average female weight for that grade.


The surplus weight of the textbooks not only acts as a physical representation of the stress of the work students have to do during the year, but the use of heavy physical textbooks can lead to health problems like chronic back pain, can increase our environmental impact as a school, and can cost more than digital textbooks.

Carrying this much weight every day can bring detrimental health effects. In an interview with the American Chiropractic Association about backpack health and safety, Dr. Scott Bautch said, “In my own practice, I have noticed a marked increase in the number of young children who are complaining about back, neck, and shoulder pain. The first thing I ask these patients is, ‘Do you carry a backpack to school?’ Almost always the answer is ‘yes.’” His findings were not singular. In a study by the Archives of Disease in Childhood in 2012, 61.4 percent of children analyzed had backpacks that were as heavy as 10 percent of their body weight. These children experienced a 50 percent higher risk of back pain and a 42 percent increase in the risk of back pathology. Many students have already been treated for injuries involving backpacks. According to a report by the U.S Consumer Product Safety Commission, at least 14,000 students are treated for backpack-related injuries each year.

In addition to being bad for student’s health, paper textbooks are environmentally taxing and are rapidly becoming obsolete in our new, digitally-driven world. According to the National Wildlife Federation, 60 percent of school waste is paper . In order to save scarce resources, many schools and organizations are switching from paper books to digital e-books. As of a 2014 Pew Research study, about 50 percent of Americans now have a dedicated handheld device like a tablet, Kindle, or Nook and almost half of readers under 30 read an e-book within the past year. As the world continues to become more and more digitized, it is important that Redwood follows suit to not only protect the environment, but to keep its students up to date and adapted to the modern times.

Some people may say that purchasing new tablets or iPads will cost the school money that we do not have. However, switching to digital textbooks and using other paperless applications can end up saving the district a lot of money.  According to Project RED, a research project about the effect of technology in education, switching to digital textbooks can save a school between $35-250 per student per year.

It’s time for Redwood to step out of the past. Many teaching methods and practices have adapted to the new communication and technology-driven world. Teachers and students use Google documents for essays and projects, students send emails when asking for help, and teachers use apps on ipads to help teach their lessons. While everything about education is evolving to improve the path to learning, why should our sources of knowledge, the textbooks, stay the same?