New Report: American Teens Spend Less Time Reading

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

‘When you’ve been used to spending most of your time switching between one digital activity and another in a matter of seconds,’ says San Diego researcher Jean M. Twenge, long-form immersive reading is a tall order.

Image – iStockphoto: Disobey Art

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
‘Reading Has Declined Precipitously’
It’s perfectly understandable that one of the least popular comments researchers can make around book publishers these days is that young people are reading less.

Nevertheless, when the point is put forward with the weight of scientific studies behind it, it’s hard to deny that the trend is deeply underway–toward short-form bursts of reading and writing on one social medium or another, and away from the long-form immersive-reading experience of a book.

Looking thoughtfully at the messages such research offers can produce a better chance of cogent, responsible reaction than efforts at dismissing or dashing past such evidence. The latest of those, as described in an article published Monday (August 20) by the American Psychological Association (APA), has a bald statement of the situation available for those ready to face the challenge: “Time on digital media has displaced time once spent enjoying a book or watching TV.”

That’s Jean M. Twenge, lead author of a newly released study, Trends in US Adolescents’ Media Use, 1976 to 2016, published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture.

In an article about the study, the American Psychological Association speaks with Twenge, a professor at San Diego State University, about her research and conclusions about the state of reading in the US.

“Think about how difficult it must be to read even five pages of an 800-page college textbook,” Twenge says, “when you’ve been used to spending most of your time switching between one digital activity and another in a matter of seconds. It really highlights the challenges students and faculty both face in the current era.”

Jean M. Twenge

In the article, Twenge says that she and her fellow researchers were surprised to see how dramatic a decline in reading their study revealed. “It’s so convenient to read books and magazines on electronic devices like tablets,” she says. “There’s no more going to the mailbox or the bookstore—you just download the magazine issue or book and start reading. Yet reading has still declined precipitously.”

And in a telling comment, she points out that “Blockbuster and VCRs didn’t kill going to the movies—but streaming videos apparently did.”

What she’s getting at is something that was also discussed in June at the Readmagine conference events in Madrid. During those sessions, many publishing professionals said they felt that television and film viewing were less the culprit for a decline in readership than social media. The frequency of distraction and the “sense of demand”—meaning the feeling by many that they must stop what they’re doing and respond to a message immediately—were breaking up the experience of long-form attention, leaving concentration scattered and extended focus impossible.

“There’s no lack of intelligence among young people,” Twenge now says in the APA article, “but they do have less experience focusing for longer periods of time and reading long-form text.

“Being able to read long-form text is crucial for understanding complex issues and developing critical thinking skills.”

She even sees red flags on the horizon in terms of how the American culture in particular–currently under unprecedented political stress–may be affected by the changes in reading patterns she and her colleagues are detecting. “Democracies,” she says to the APA, “need informed voters and involved citizens who can think through issues, and that might be more difficult for people of all ages now that online information is the norm.”

Less Than 20 Percent Reading Daily

At the heart of the research results is the finding that less than 20 percent of US teens studied report reading a book, magazine, or newspaper daily for pleasure in recent years. And yet more than 80 percent say they use various social media every day.

“Compared with previous generations,” says Twenge, “teens in the 2010s spent more time online and less time with traditional media, such as books, magazines and television.”

Twenge worked with San Diego colleagues Gabrielle Martin and Brian Spitzberg to make the study, which is ongoing and surveys a nationally representative sample of some 50,000 students in 8th, 10th, and 12th grades annually, as developed by the Monitoring the Future project based at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. Spanning a 40-year time frame from 1976 to 2016, the researchers were looking across responses from more than 1 million teens. The study had begun with 12th graders only in the 1970s and was expanded to include 8th- and 10th-graders in 1991.

It’s between 2006 and 2016 that the team sees the most dramatic uptake in digital media usage, with 12th graders doubling their Internet usage in leisure time from one to two hours daily. Interestingly, the rises in usage rates detected by the researchers (75 percent for 10th-graders and 68 percent for eighth-graders) were “fairly uniform,” the report tells us, “across gender, race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status.”

“Democracies need informed voters and involved citizens who can think through issues, and that might be more difficult for people of all ages now that online information is the norm.”Jean M. Twenge

Twenge says that in the mid-2010s, the team is tracking 12th-graders’ usage of digital media at some six hours per day “on just three media activities during their leisure time. Those three activities are texting, Internet activity (including gaming), and social media. In the 10th grade, the students studied were closer to five hours of such activity daily, and the eighth-graders at four hours.

Writing about the study at The Washington Post on Monday, Hannah Natanson notes that, “The survey question asking students whether and how often they read books, magazines and newspapers did not differentiate between print and electronic versions of these items. Twenge acknowledged that this could mean the study’s results underestimate or discount the amount of time high-schoolers spend reading online.

“But this is unlikely, especially with regard to books, she said. The study cites previous research in support of the idea that students view books and ebooks as falling under the same umbrella, meaning the study’s findings probably pretty accurately reflect teenagers’ reading habits.”

And the dilemma for publishers, of course, becomes more critical with each passing year: if the close-by distractions of social media, let alone other entertainment media, are actually damaging the capability and propensity of younger readers to grapple with long-form reading, then how can the books industry position its output in a way that’s attractive as a competitor to those distractions?

Where once the challenge was in getting a good book in front of a lot of eyeballs, the marketing of publishing’s output today is taking on a new and deep layer of complication: how does publishing persuade a busy, distracted, but crucial demographic that what it offers is worth breaking away from the scattershot staccato of the digital vocabulary?

Can publishing distract these readers from their distractions?

Image – iStockphoto: Disobey Art

More from Publishing Perspectives on research relative to the publishing industry is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.