In fact, 1 in 3 U.S. high school seniors did not read a book for pleasure in 2016. In the same time period, 82 percent of 12th-graders visited sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram every day.
Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and one of the authors of the study, said the lack of leisure reading is troubling. For her, the most important discovery hidden in the data is this statistic: In the 1970s, about 60 percent of high school seniors reported reading a book, magazine or newspaper every single day. Four decades later, in 2016, 16 percent of high school seniors reported doing so.
The reason for the concern is that the skill set and attention it takes to digest concepts in long-form writing are quite different from glancing at a text message or status update, she said.
“Reading long-form texts like books and magazine articles is really important for understanding complex ideas and for developing critical thinking skills,” Twenge said. “It’s also excellent practice for students who are going on to college.”
The study, conducted by Twenge and two colleagues at San Diego State, Gabrielle Martin and Brian Spitzberg, is based on data culled through a survey project called Monitoring the Future that has been ongoing since 1975. Run by researchers at the University of Michigan and funded by the National Institutes of Health, Monitoring the Future surveys high school students across the nation quizzing them on their career plans and drug use, among other things.
Twenge, Martin and Spitzberg analyzed self-reported reading habits of eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders between 1976 and 2016, representing a total of more than 1 million teenagers. The researchers compared high-schoolers’ consumption of “legacy media” — books, newspapers and magazines — to their consumption of “digital media,” which includes the Internet, cellphone texts, video games and social media sites.
The decline in reading rates of legacy media began in the early 1980s and accelerated swiftly after the mid-2000s, when smartphones and high-speed Internet access became widely available. At the same time, high-schoolers’ screen time, including television, began to rise — nearly tripling between the late 1970s and the mid-2010s, according to the study.
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.
Twenge said she and her co-authors think that the trends are intertwined. The data shows that, given an hour to themselves, teens would rather pick up their devices than a book. “Does digital media displace the leisure time people once spent on legacy media? We find that the answer is yes,” she said.
The racial and gender breakdown of the surveyed group roughly matched national demographics, and the main findings did not vary according to race, gender or socioeconomic status, Twenge said. There was one slight difference between the sexes: Girls reported visiting social media sites more often than boys, while boys reported spending more time on video games.
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 e-books as falling under the same umbrella, meaning the study’s findings probably pretty accurately reflect teenagers’ reading habits.
Twenge, herself a mother of three, said she suspects many parents will find the new study worrisome. Not only could less time spent reading translate to poorer performance in college, but also social media usage has been shown to lead to increased social isolation and mental health issues.
So, what can parents do to make their teenager put down the phone and crack open a book?
The solution can require a complicated dance between coercion and suggestion, said Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the author of “Raising Kids Who Read.”
The first step is prying your kids away from their screens, Willingham said. But don’t tie lack of screen time to enforced reading. Don’t, for example, take your teenager’s phone and tell him he can have it back once he has read for 30 minutes.
“This is not the way we treat things that we want to teach children are pleasurable,” Willingham said. “I mean, think about it. You would never think of coercing your child into having a piece of cake.”
Instead, when enforcing a temporary ban on devices, make sure that books are the second-best option available (after the forbidden screens) to stave off boredom. One way to do this, according to Dean-Michael Crosby, a teacher at a school in England who often advises parents on this issue, is to “litter your house with eye-catching titles.” He suggested leaving books lying around the living room, the kitchen, even the bathrooms.
“Even if they pick one up to browse as they’re waiting for the kettle to boil, that might be just the book for them,” Crosby said. “That might be the book that hooks them forever!”
Both Willingham and Crosby advised trying graphic novels. With their abundance of pictures — coupled with more mature themes and age-appropriate content — these books can help usher reluctant teens into the world of literature.
Another way to instill a love for reading is to teach kids how useful it can be. The next time your child comes to you with a question, Willingham said, tell them to go find the answer by visiting a library and reading about the issue on their own. Explain that books offer a level of in-depth knowledge not available through the “instant gratification” of the Internet.
Finally, it’s important to model good reading behavior. “That almost goes without saying,” Willingham said. “If you’re nagging your child to read, and you’re just sort of on Instagram all the time, why in the world would they take that seriously?”