Think back to when you were a kid, what were the books you loved to read? Were you hooked on the Famous Five? Was Puberty Blues the book that everyone knew about but dared not read? Reading a good book is a form of escapism for many of us, but as kids and teens they can be a path to enlightenment. Reading about adventures and mysteries are food for the imagination, while complex fictional characters and their emotional experiences can be an important way for kids and teens to learn about the human condition. Books often contain moral lessons about kindness, fairness, and helping behaviours. And they bring us joy. When the Harry Potter books burst onto the literary scene in 1997 they were credited with bringing the joy of reading to a whole new generation of kids. But sadly, kids aren’t reading books as much as their parents and grandparents did. In a longitudinal study of American teens reading habits, Jean Twenge and colleagues found a staggering decrease in the percentage of teens who read longform text (e.g. books, magazines etc.) daily for pleasure. In the late 1970’s around 60% of teens reported that they read books daily for pleasure (i.e. excluding books assigned as school work). In 2016, the number of teens who reported the same was down to 16%.
So if they aren’t reading books and magazines, what are they doing?
Watching TV would be a good guess, however the researchers found that teens were watching about an hour less TV per day in 2016 compared to the early 1990s. What we do know, is that kids in Australia spend an extraordinary amount of time online. The average teen spends an average of 44 hours per week on mobile screens, more hours than a full time job. Primary school-aged kids spend on average 32 hours per week, while pre-school kids (aged 2-5 years) spend an average of 29 hours per week on screens. As for kids aged less than 2 years, they spend around 14 hours per week on screens, on average.
All of these figures, published in 2017, give some pretty big clues as to what has displaced books and magazines in kids lives. Technology use may not be ‘dumbing kids down’ so much as reducing their capacity to concentrate on a single source of information for a period of time, and synthesise its contents. The potential impact of a lack of reading in childhood might only be felt when kids get to the pointy end of high school, or further education settings. If you have become used to switching between sources of information from moment to moment, and your reading has been limited to status updates or tweets, how well will you fare when you are set your first 400 page textbook at University or need to wade through technical documents or reports in a workplace setting?
Maybe it’s time to dust off the Famous Five?