Why Don’t Teens Read For Pleasure Like They Used To?

| May 12, 2014
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By Jennifer Ludden

Harry Potter and The Hunger Games haven’t been big hits for nothing. Lots of teens and adolescents still read quite a lot.

But a roundup of studies, put together by the nonprofit Common Sense Media, shows a clear decline over time. Nearly half of 17-year-olds say they read for pleasure no more than one or two times a year — if that. That’s way down from a decade ago.

From the Common Sense Media release:

According to government studies, since 1984, the percent of 13-year-olds who are weekly readers went down from 70% to 53%, and the percent of 17-year-olds who are weekly readers went from 64% to 40%. The percent of 17-year-olds who never or hardly ever read tripled during this period, from 9% to 27%.

The digital revolution means there are more platforms than ever to read on. And yet, the number of American teens reading for pleasure has dropped dramatically. Researchers are asking if there’s a link.

Jim Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense Media, is one of them. He’s been studying the impact of technology on children, and he finds the results striking — though not entirely shocking.

Steyer has four kids and has seen the trend most with his 16-year-old. “I start to see it in our 10-year-old, as well, because he is less and less reading, and more and more attracted to some of the digital media platforms that he has access to, and that he did not have access to when he was, say, 6 or 7 years old,” he says.

The studies do not say that kids are reading less because they’re spending more time online. But Steyer is convinced that’s at least part of the answer.

“First of all, most children now have access to e-readers, or other smart electronic devices like phones and tablets,” he says. “And they’re spending time on that. Numerous reports show the increasing use of new technology platforms by kids. It just strikes me as extremely logical that that’s a big factor.”

Jamahri Sydnor and Chiamaka Anosike are ninth-graders waiting for the bus outside Wilson High School in Washington, D.C. How do they relax?

“I don’t really read for pleasure,” says Sydnor. “Generally I talk on the phone. Or I watch Netflix shows, or Hulu shows, mostly TV. That’s it.”

“I don’t read for pleasure either, unless it’s for a school assignment,” says Anosike. “I’m usually on my phone or watching TV, too.”

Of course, some students say they love to read but have too much homework — or are swamped with sports.

Researchers want to know more about how teens are spending their time in the digital age. But Kathryn Zickuhr of the Pew Research Center says it’s tricky. If a kid is looking at a book, you can assume he or she is reading. But when it comes to looking at a smartphone or tablet, who knows?

“We’ve heard from middle and high school teachers that sometimes the Internet is wonderful for highly motivated students to do deep and expansive research,” says Zickuhr. “But on the flip side, obviously there are many distractions on the Internet.”

Despite those distractions, Jim Steyer of Common Sense Media says, parents can do a lot to promote reading.

“Kids with parents who read, who buy or take books out of the library for their kids, and who then set time aside in their kids’ daily schedule for reading, tend to read the most,” he says — whether it’s on a book, an e-book or some other gadget.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
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  • secarter

    Perhaps with all the ‘assigned’ reading, there’s not much time left to just read for enjoyment.

    • geri caruso

      Do you mean assigned reading like …oh… let’s say….A Wrinkle in Time?

      • secarter

        I’m talking about the overload of assigned (summer?) reading that is required. Could be “A Wrinkle in Time,” depending on the grade level, but it is always accompanied by other books. Assigned reading takes much more effort.
        And then, perhaps the instructors will also require annotation…
        I have seen the ‘requirements’ suck all the enjoyment out of reading for fun.

  • geri caruso

    When my kids were young they all read and I never limited reading time and we never had fights about it. I read to them until they were past elementary school. I read to them on trips in the car and they always had a book with them if there was going to be a wait for something. My grandkids do read, but a lot of their time is spent on stupid games and inane junk while they are using their tablets. A lot of time is also spent on arguing with them about how much time they are spending online and what they are doing while they are online. I wonder what we have done to our children by buying the “technology revolution” as anything more than a way to get our hard earned money, a way to make a few people incredibly rich. Really…. $700. for a piece of junk made out side the US, by slave labor and that actually costs a few dollar to make, to play a stupid “math” game. And games, games, games, endlessly pushed on our kids as “learning.” What is the matter with us.

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  • http://lalatoadstone.blogspot.com/ La La in the LiBrArY

    Hmm… I don’t find this to be true. I fight this “teens don’t read anymore” label all the time. I actually think it may be more not less!! YA authors are up there with rockstars now. Teens even blog about books and tweet about them a lot!!

  • Kim

    One of the issues kids are facing are longer homework times outside of school. My 4th grader has between 45-90 minutes of homework 3-4 nights a week and my 10th grader spends approximately 3 hours a night five days a week. After sitting in a classtoom 7 hours a day, doing chores, then homework, they just want to shower and go to bed.

  • Heike Larson

    How many parents read daily with their children–and how has that statistic changed over time? How many children see their parents read? How many parents discuss the books they read for pleasure with their children?

    Children are sponges. As Dr. Montessori so correctly stated, they are built to absorb the culture around them. When they don’t see people read, when there aren’t books accessible, they’ll conclude reading doesn’t matter.

    I don’t think blaming gadgets gets to the fundamental cause of the problem. In my house, I read with my elementary-age children about an hour each day. I read (on my iPad or iPhone) all the time, and discuss what I read. We read chapter books out loud on those devices, and we love the ability to quickly look up difficult words, or to pause for a quick research excursion into a topic that captivates their interest. My seven-year-old reads on my gadgets, too–and she’s acquired the habit of looking up vocabulary terms as she reads.

    When children value reading, because reading is valued at home and at school, as something enjoyable, they will read. When adults don’t read around children, and when reading is equated to dreaded school work, as part of some tracked reading program where points are earned for reading books, it devalues the experience.

    That, and not gadgets, is I think the fundamental cause for young people reading less. To the extent that is true, the cure is not to remove devices, but to ensure children associate reading with pleasure, no matter how the written material is delivered.

    More on that here: http://leportschools.com/blog/reading-for-happiness/

    • Minder

      We’ve read every single day with my kids until they were teens. I spent hours reading with them each day up till they were 12. I personally read everyday and have easily 1000 books sitting in at least a dozen book cases around the house. The kids don’t read anything unless its on the computer or an assignment from school. There was a short period of time where my son would zip through books for fun. But that seemed to change when he got glasses and a laptop.

      Then again, I was the same way. I was always interested in books, just never read them. Today, each new non-fiction book is exciting for me to read and enhances my understanding of the world. I’m always reading several books at once.

      So, I can only hope they will change as their little brains mature. However, a better read mind at a younger age gives the adult mind advantages – a head start and additional interest in many things.

    • Minder

      Once we gave the kids digital devices, they changed. It started with handheld games. We would take them to restaurants and the entire time their heads are down playing games. Eventually, we went out to eat without the devices.

      Then kids 11/12 were getting cell phones. We ended up getting them phones too, but we did put up a struggle fighting the wave. Once they had the phone, they spent lots of their free time looking at them. The phones replaced the games.

      Then the killer was giving each child a laptop. By now, they are teens in middle school. This takes over much of their lives – sad. In the beginning I limited and even took them away. But, once the genie is out, its hard getting it back into the bottle.

      I should also add that my son moved onto video games at an early age. It’s difficult to regulate access when a device is in their room or in a room they are in by themselves. I find nothing wrong with video games. It’s the quantity that hurts and the addiction that takes them away from reading and doing other valuable things.

      If I had to do it over again, I would bolt down the devices to one location outside their room inside the house with a limited time beyond school work. This would include high school. Digital devices can be addictive for both adults and children. The amount of time in front of a screen affects your cognitive brain in ways we don’t fully understand yet. It is a time stealer that interferes with young minds from experiences, challenges, to relationships.

      We must be mindful that digital devices are just tools. Learning to use tools properly makes all the difference. If my kids did not have so many distractions, they would be reading every day while learning and and enjoying something new.

      Learn from my mistakes, there are many, so your kids get the advantage of learning in their young life. Books are amazing and can provide more satisfaction in a child’s life over a lifetime than simply looking at and participating in junk on digital devices.

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