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Teens are still reading for fun, say media specialists

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By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 31, 2010; 10:44 PM

Teens read for pleasure, even in the digital age.

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That's how it looks here in a Rockville library, where 14-year-old Olivia Smith is propped in a comfy chair, deep into a Japanese novel genre called manga. She has already been reading on the computer for an hour, and later, when she texts her friends, she will still be turning pages between messages. "I'm sort of a bookworm," she says.

Recreational reading has changed for teens in an era of ebooks and laptops and hours spent online, but experts and media specialists say there are signs of promise in spite of busy lives and research findings that show traditional book reading is down.

"It's not that they're reading less; they're reading in a different way," says Kim Patton, president of the Young Adult Library Services Association.

A detailed analysis into the trend on reading for fun - in books, newspapers and magazines - comes from researcher Sandra Hofferth, of University of Maryland, who analyzed the detailed daily time-use diaries of a nationally representative sample of children 12 to 18.

Pleasure reading dropped 23 percent in 2008, compared with 2003, from 65 minutes a week to 50 minutes a week - with the greatest falloff for those ages 12 to 14. Still, she says: "They could be reading on the cell phone, in games, on the Web, on the computer. It doesn't meant they're not reading, but they're not reading using the printed page."

Michael Kamil, an education researcher at Stanford, sees it much the same way, noting that teens "still read quite a bit but in different ways and for different reasons than the adults believe they should," he says.

The question of what really constitutes "reading" has been debated for decades, says Kamil, whose own definition is broad: It includes not just books, magazines, newspapers and blogs but text messages, multimedia documents, certain computer games, and many Web pages. "It's all important," he said.

Recreational book reading looked stronger in a January study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which found more reading overall than the Maryland study. For kids 8 to 18, it reported a decline from 43 minutes a day to 38 a minutes a day, entirely related to magazines and newspapers. At the same time, students reported online reading of those publications - an average of two minutes a day.

"The data say to me that kids have a love of reading that is enduring and that is different than other things teens do," said co-author Victoria Rideout.

Clearly, books still can create a phenomenon.

Think "Harry Potter." The "Twilight" series. And lately, "The Hunger Games," a science-fiction trilogy that librarian Deborah Fry says has created "quite a waiting list" in her Loudoun library branch in Ashburn.


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