It has been widely reported that teenagers are reading less these days. Studies have shown that fewer teens are picking up a book, either for enjoyment or for information, and that those who do may be appreciating less of the content than teens from a decade ago. Many parents and teachers would readily agree with these findings. But why should reading be so unpopular with teenagers? Have teenagers changed, or has society? The answer may be that both possibilities are true.
We know that the teenage brain is wired differently to that of a child or an adult. It has been described as ‘a work in progress’, in which the centres governing impulsivity and emotion are more dominant than those controlling reason. For many teens, the concentration and commitment required to read a book may involve a challenge that is beyond the capacity of their developing minds. If their reading skills are undeveloped, they may find that ploughing through a book is more of an intellectual exercise than an emotional one, and there’s not much pleasure in that.
Furthermore, teens are ‘wired’ to be intensely social animals, and reading is usually perceived as a solitary activity. When asked to name their favourite pastimes, ‘hanging out with friends’ is invariably at the top of the list. What is interesting, however, is that some of that ‘hanging out’ time may involve discussing books like “Twilight” or “The Hunger Games”. Part of the reason why best-selling young adult books are so successful is that even non-readers will give them a chance; a solitary activity can become a shared experience. Regrettably, perhaps, this does not necessarily lead to wider reading, except by much derided ‘nerds’. Among teens, what your peers are doing and thinking will always be more important than the actions and ideas of a fictional ‘stranger’.
As meaningful as this information may be, it does little to explain the apparent drop in reading participation among teens. To understand the problem more fully, it is necessary to look beyond the teenage mind and consider what else they are doing with their time.
Modern teenagers enjoy a fast-paced life, with more entertainment options than ever. TV, movies and video games are all seen as more desirable than reading, (or playing sport, for that matter). Even a blockbuster teen novel like “The Hunger Games” cannot hope to shift as many units as “Grand Theft Auto” or “Call of Duty”. Teenagers get their stories from moving pictures these days. And when you can ‘be’ the character rather than just read about them, the satisfaction is more immediate and intense. When James Cameron made “Avatar” (2009) he was, perhaps knowingly, tapping into the fantasies of gamers everywhere. Teenagers use ‘avatars’ all the time, in role-playing video games and in their social networking. The alter-egos that were once experienced through the joy of books are now characters created by the teens themselves.
Without doubt, the single biggest influence on teenage literacy has been the impact of personal technologies such as mobile phones and computers. These technologies have radically changed the way we communicate, and it is the digital natives, the teens, who have been more profoundly affected than digital immigrants like their parents and teachers. The shorthand text-speak, developed for phone use and taken to its logical extreme on sites like Twitter, is ideal for rapid communication but does little to develop depth of thought or clarity of expression. Nor does it help to develop the sustained concentration required for reading books, or even lengthy articles. Ours is a sound-bite society, in which being heard is more important than what is being said.
Although writers such as Steven Johnson, author of “Everything Bad is Good for You”, have praised the impact that technology and contemporary culture have had on our thinking skills, a number of other authors have strongly suggested that our love affair with new media is damaging the way our brains work. In “The Dumbest Generation”, Mark Bauerlein argues that the digital age has spawned a crop of self-absorbed and disinterested youngsters who have facts and friends at their fingertips, but who lack the skills and passion necessary to make proper sense of their world. In several books and articles, including the Pulitzer Prize nominated “The Shallows”, Nicholas Carr has proposed that the internet and associated technologies are not only changing the way we read and think, they are making it harder for us to do so. According to Carr (and Bauerlein), we don’t actually read for meaning any longer; we ‘power-scan’ instead, allowing a barrage of hyperlinks, quips and images to make the connections that our brains used to. Similarly, our research and writing skills are no longer challenged and refined because of search engines, the omnipresence of Wikipedia, and the protocols required for social networking. Our brains have been ‘rewired’ by technology. Teenagers, the true natives of this digital age, are indeed still reading and writing, but they are doing it in ways that are new, not completely understood, and not entirely favourable.
And so we come full circle. Reading is not so popular with modern teens because their brains may be wired differently from teenagers of the 20th Century. Furthermore, it is likely that 21st Century society, and especially its technology, has been responsible for that change. So, is there a solution?
Perhaps there is. We can begin by recognising that technology itself is not the threat, but rather the way in which it is being used. Two thousand years ago, Plato, in the “Phaedrus”, had Socrates warn of the harm done to teaching and learning by a relatively new innovation: writing. It was claimed that writing was no aid to memory, no catalyst for argument, and a poor substitute for a teacher’s expertise and guidance. Well, we know how that turned out, but the reasons given by Socrates are today being recycled with regards to computers. We need to acknowledge that the technologies available to our young people are immensely powerful and have the potential to change their literacy, and their impressions of reading, in positive ways.
There are a number of ways we can embrace the digital age while ensuring that rigorous teaching is being maintained. Digital platforms like Kindle and iPad already offer teenagers a new way of experiencing books, but we need to make them available to all students if there is to be an impact on youth culture. The innovative “Million” project in New York has demonstrated how portable technologies can reward students in and out of the classroom, while academics like James Gee are advocating the use of video-games in teaching and learning. The internet can be an invaluable research tool, but we must make more of an effort to teach its proper use. Rather than discredit ‘text-speak’, let us challenge students to learn more about language through its use, perhaps by translating the strange texts of Shakespeare into this new and equally strange idiom.
As of now, the majority of teachers are digital immigrants, or worse, tourists, but that will change. In the meantime, we must encourage parents to play a greater role in their children’s literacy by ensuring that books are not only available but shared. The years before puberty are when the foundations on which to build good reading practices are laid and this is when parents need to be most vigilant. Before peers become the most important people of influence, parents need to read with kids, and be seen reading books of their own choosing. They need to actively demonstrate that reading is fun and interesting, and not the chore that formal schooling tends to make it.
The war on teenage reading may not yet be lost. But if we are to win it, we need to continue striving toward a better understanding of the battleground on which it is being fought.