Recently I read the book iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy--and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood--and What That Means for the Rest of Us by Jean Twenge. It's about the generation of kids born between roughly 1995 and 2010, a generation Twenge dubs iGen, is different from previous generations. Twenge relies on analysis of several surveys of high school kids and young adults that have been asking the same questions for many years, supplemented by interviews with junior high, high school and college kids. I was interested in this book in part because my daughter falls right at the tail of the time window, and also because my company has been looking to hire students graduating from college (the other end of the iGen window).
There are a lot of interesting ideas and conclusions in the book, and I do recommend that people give it a look. The take home message for me is that I want to put off getting my daughter a smartphone for as long as possible, while encouraging her to continue participating in sports and spending time in person with other kids. Because these things are all associated with more positive outcomes.
But what I want to talk about specifically today is two points that the book makes regarding reading for pleasure. In Chapter 2, there's a section of the book titled "Are Books Dead?" Sadly, Twenge's conclusion is that reading for pleasure, while not dead, is in decline among today's kids. She notes that:
"In the late 1970's, the clear majority of teens read a book or a magazine nearly every day, but by 2015, only 16% did. In other words, three times as many Boomers as iGen’ers read a book or magazine every day. Because the survey question was written in the 1970s, before e-readers existed, it does not specify the format of the book or magazine, so Millennials or iGen’ers who read on a Kindle or iPad would still be included...
By 2015, one out of three high school seniors admitted they had not read any books for pleasure in the past year, three times as many as in 1976. Even college students entering four-year universities, the young people presumably most likely to read books, are reading less (see Figure 2.4)...
This huge decline flatly contradicts a 2014 Pew Research Center study cheered by many in publishing, which found that 16-to 29-year-olds were more likely to read books than older people. Why the difference? The Pew study included books read for school assignments, which younger people are of course more likely to have. Thus it committed the classic mistake of a one-time study: confusing age and generation. In the data here, where everyone is the same age, iGen teens are much less likely to read books than their Millennial, GenX, and Boomer predecessors."
There's a graph. Twenge shows similar results for reading magazines and newspapers. She posits (after looking at data showing that teens are not spending more time on homework or other extracurricular activities) that this decline is due to teens spending so much time on smartphones that reading time is basically squeezed out. She also shows that this decline in time spent reading coincides with a decline in SAT scores, especially in writing and critical reading (though of course it is impossible to directly claim causation). She expresses concern that as today's teens head into college, reading long textbooks will be extremely difficult for them, and suggests changes that may be necessary to accommodate the iGen'ers.
So that's point 1: Teens today are reading less, at least in part because they are spending a lot of time on smartphones.
For the second point that I'm interested in sharing, we turn to Chapter 4 of iGen: Insecure: The New Mental Health Crisis. In this chapter, Twenge shares a range of demoralizing statistics about how today's teens are more emotionally fragile, more lonely, and more prone to depression and suicide. She looks at a variety of survey data and attempts to discern causes, applying a two-part test to possible causes: "(1) it must be correlated with mental health issues or unhappiness and (2) it must have changed at the same time and in the correct direction." She finds:
"Time spent doing homework fails both tests; it’s not linked to depression, and it didn’t change much over that time period. TV watching is linked to depression, but teens watch less TV now than they used to, so it fails test number two. Time spent on exercise and sports is linked to less depression, but it didn’t change much since 2012, so they fail test number two, too.
Only three activities definitively pass both tests. First, new-media screen time (such as electronic devices and social media) is linked to mental health issues and/ or unhappiness, and it rose at the same time. Second and third, in-person social interaction and print media are linked to less unhappiness and less depression, and both have declined at the same time as mental health has deteriorated.
A plausible theory includes three possible causes: (1) more screen time has led directly to more unhappiness and depression, (2) more screen time has led to less in-person social interaction, which then led to unhappiness and depression, and (3) more screen time has led to less print media use, leading to unhappiness and depression. In the end, all of the mechanisms come back to new-media screen time in one way or another. By all accounts, it is the worm at the core of the apple."
You'll have to read the book for the full details of which studies Twenge is referencing and how she comes to these conclusions. But what particularly struck me (as will not surprise regular readers) is that reading print media, like participating in sports and spending time with friends, was associated with positive mental health outcomes. So that's point 2.
So here's what we have: teens are spending less time reading for pleasure, and this decline is associated with negative mental health outcomes. What this says to me is that encouraging kids to enjoy reading is even more important than I already thought. Reading for pleasure has so many benefits: improved vocabulary, increased empathy, and improved math skills, to name a few. And now, it seems, it may also be tied to mental health and happiness.
To all parents reading this, I implore you: put as much focus as you can on making sure that your kids ENJOY reading. Don't worry about their reading level, or how many graphic novels they read, or whether or not they make spelling errors when they write. If you help them to ENJOY reading, they will eventually read, and many good things will follow. You'll be helping them academically in the long run. You'll be giving them hours of pleasure in the short run. And you'll be doing something that appears to protect against ills like anxiety and depression. If that's not worth doing, I don't know what is.