Teens Have Replaced Reading With Texting and Social Media

CC BY 2.0. Matthew G -- Modern friendship

One-third of American teens did not read a single book for pleasure in 2016. That's worrisome for a lot of reasons.

That teenagers have replaced books with texting and social media likely will not come not a surprise to anybody, but it's still sad to see the facts laid out in a formal study. Led by Jean Twenge, a psychology professor from San Diego State University whose book, iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy -- and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood -- and What That Means for the Rest of Us, made headlines last year, the study confirms what many parents already suspected.

The research team, which included Twenge and her colleagues Gabrielle Martin and Brian Spitzberg, examined data collected from a nation-wide survey called Monitoring the Future, which has been ongoing since 1975. In it, more than one million high-schoolers have shared information about their personal lives and interests, career plans, drug use, etc. Using this information, the researchers were able to piece together a picture of media consumption that has evolved considerably over the past four decades.

Back in the 1970s, around 60 percent of twelfth-graders read newspapers, magazines, and books (referred to in the study as 'legacy' media, as opposed to digital media) on a daily basis. By 2016, that number had shrunk to 16 percent. In 2016, one in three American high school students did not read a single book for pleasure and less than 20 percent read for pleasure each day. In the same time period, 82 percent of twelfth-graders visited social media sites, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, every day.

The Washington Post writes, "In 2016, 12th-graders reported devoting about six hours of their free time every day to digital media. Tenth-graders reported devoting five hours, and eighth-graders reporting devoting four hours."

There are only so many hours in a day, and if phone use is allowed to occupy so much of it, it is no wonder that it's hard to find time to do anything else. This is something I heard Twenge say once in an interview with CBC, that the dangers posed by excessive phone use may not even be the phones themselves so much as everything the kids aren't doing because they're on their phones instead. As quoted in the Washington Post:

“Does digital media displace the leisure time people once spent on legacy media? We find that the answer is yes,” [Twenge] said.

Why is this a problem, some may ask? After all, critics might argue, so much of what we do nowadays is based online, so legacy media may no longer be as relevant as it once was. I do not think that's the case. I see this shift in media consumption as being unfortunate and deeply worrisome.

Reading is a skill that must be practiced in order to become second-nature. If kids do not develop that skill, they will struggle their way through post-secondary education, where significant reading is required. Offline reading allows for deeper-level comprehension of issue and is conducive to developing critical thinking skills and being able to separate fact from fiction. "It’s crucial for being an informed voter, an involved citizen, a successful college student and a productive employee." (via Wall Street Window) Then there are the very real concerns about excessive social media use, which has been linked to depression, anxiety, and increased social isolation, even higher teenage suicide rates.

What should a parent do? Most basically, screen time should be limited and controlled. (Two hours is considered a safe amount.) Books should be made available as "the second-best option available (after the forbidden screens) to stave off boredom." Stock the house with great books; get them from the library and spread them around so your teen might pick one up and get hooked.

If you have younger children, read to them every day. Choose an engaging series of books that will capture their interest. My early-elementary-aged kids love Harry Potter and Narnia, as well as Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain and the Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan. Graphic novels and comic books (Calvin & Hobbes, Astérix, etc.) can entertain a younger kid for hours. Get ideas from friends with similar-aged kids or ask a librarian for guidance.

Last but not least, as the Post points out, "it’s important to model good reading behavior." A child will be more inclined to read if they see their parent reading and enjoying it.