Teens Are Spending More Time Socializing Online Than Reading — Researchers Think
Less than 20% of teens in the US read a book, magazine or newspaper daily for pleasure, reveals a report published by the American Psychological Association. It is a starker, more detailed version of a similar trend observed in India.
“Time on digital media has displaced time once spent enjoying a book or watching TV,” said study author Jean M. Twenge, PhD, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University.
It’s a strong assertion that is characteristic of past findings by Twenge, the author of 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, but may not be fully borne out by the data.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Twenge said the most disturbing finding to emerge from her analysis is the drop in pleasure reading among high school seniors — 60% of whom reported reading either a book, magazine or newspaper daily in the 1970s, but only 16% of whom reported the same in 2016. However, the survey did not distinguish between digital and hardcopy versions of these media. Per the Washington Post: “Twenge acknowledged that this could mean the study’s results underestimate or discount the amount of time high-schoolers spend reading online,” but said it’s unlikely, pointing to other research that has found teens consider books and e-books to be the same thing, and so are probably reporting on their general reading habits, regardless of method of consumption.
That conclusion doesn’t fully jive with others’ findings. According to a report in The Guardian, figures from the 2016 Nielsen’s survey reveal that while e-book sales are falling and sales of paper books are growing, it is the younger generation who is behind the shift, at least in the UK.
Regardless, even if Twenge’s assumption that the probable is true holds, the question then becomes: Should we be worried?
Twenge speaks compellingly of lost skills: “Reading long-form texts like books and magazine articles is really important for understanding complex ideas and for developing critical thinking skills,” she told the Washington Post. “It’s also excellent practice for students who are going on to college.”
There’s no disputing the value of reading long-form texts. But an (assumed) decline in the activity is only deeply troublesome if reading is the only, or most essential, way of understanding complex ideas or developing critical thinking skills.
It’s not. Long before reading and writing were widespread skills, the Socratic Method explored complex ideas and built critical thought orally; it remains a legitimate teaching method to this day. And it’s telling that classroom teachers are already pivoting to explore how social media can be used to foster critical thinking habits.
Reading is a critical skill, but it’s possible it doesn’t have to be the only means of building other skills. As social skills increasingly gain in value, the texting, gaming and social media use that has made inroads into time spent reading, per Twenge’s study, may pay off for teens — if guided by parents and teachers. If anything, the conclusion to leap to from Twenge’s latest research may be that teaching children digital literacy skills is becoming all the more important — whether the teaching of them requires long-form reading or not.