by Dr. Lorin Bradbury
Question: How are the various forms of social media affecting this generation’s ability to read?
Other than blogs that expressed opinions, I was unable to locate any good research on the subject. However, I did come across an article in the September 19, 2011 issue of Newsweek on a related topic that is disturbing. The article, entitled “Texting Makes U Stupid” began: “The U.S. is producing civilization illiterates. How will they compete against America’s global rivals? The good news is that today’s teenagers are avid readers and prolific writers. The bad news is that what they are reading and writing are text messages.”
The writer of the article, Niall Ferguson, professor of history and business at Harvard, went on to state: “According to a survey carried out last year by Nielsen, Americans between the ages of 13 and 17 send and receive an average of 3,339 texts per month. Teenage girls send and receive more than 4,000.” Wow!!! His description of the texting individual—“[S]louching around, eyes averted, tapping away, oblivious to their surroundings”—is evident everywhere you go. (No doubt the above statistics have become outdated over the past year, but any changes in texting have probably been replaced by Facebook posts.)
Professor Ferguson is not simply throwing stones at modern technology. His concerns appear legitimate. In his article, he presented statistics that should concern every parent of a texting teenager.
• “Half of today’s teenagers don’t read books—except when they’re made to. According to the most recent survey by the National Endowment for the Arts, the proportion of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 who read a book not required at school or at work is now 50.7 percent.”
• “[T]wo thirds of college freshmen read for pleasure for less than an hour per week. A third of seniors don’t read for pleasure at all.
• “[T]he gap in reading ability between the Shanghai district of China and those in the United States is now as big as the gap between the U.S. and Serbia or Chile.
As a history professor, his greatest concern is that “children who don’t read are cut off from the civilization of their ancestors.” Though he doesn’t say it directly, I believe he is expressing concern that those of us who live in democratic societies are losing our heritage. As a result, we lose touch with why we are who we are. When we no longer know why we are who we are, we become vulnerable to undemocratic ideals—and we don’t care.
Maybe his statistics are too abstract. The editors of the New York Times (January 28, 2010) put it another way: “Young Americans from the ages of 8 to 18 spend more than seven and a half hours a day on average using a smart phone, computer, television or other electronic device.”
Professor Ferguson listed eleven books that are essential to Western civilization. I have to admit that I have not read many of the books on his list. Also, he describes an elaborate way in which you can get your kids off the cell phone and other electronic devices. He goes on to describe planning a vacation free of any electronic devices and full of good reading material. I found his recommendations are probably unrealistic for the average person living in our region, so I have listed some of my own suggestions below.
1. Begin by reading to your children regularly when they are very young, and continuing the process until they are old enough to read for themselves.
2. Discipline yourself by turning off computers and other electronic devices at a reasonable time. (For example, 8:00 P.M.) Don’t make exceptions. You might even go so far as to not answering the phone after a predetermined time.
3. Do not take computers, computer games, electronic games, cell phones, televisions, or any other electronic device into your bedroom. Have a repository where everyone deposits electronic devices at a specified time.
4. Establish a reading time in your home, where everyone reads for pleasure. This time is not to be used for homework.
5. Discuss what you are reading among family members. If your children are teenagers, you might consider choosing a book that everyone reads, and then establish a time for discussion.
6. You might even go so far as to practice a 1 to 3 day moratorium on all electronic communication devices in your household. That means no telephone, computer, television, or any other electronic device for 1 to 3 days. You might become aware of how addicted you and your family members really are when you begin to go through withdrawals. Though psychological in nature, these withdrawals may be very similar to what an alcoholic or a drug addict goes through. Marie Winn in her book, The Plug-In Drug, written in 1978, described withdrawals in children when they were taken off television as being similar to withdrawals from intoxicating substances. Imagine the impact of abstaining from all forms of electronic devices in 2011. The experiment would probably provide you with some measure of how powerfully addicting all the modern electronic devices really are.
Lorin L. Bradbury, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Bethel. For appointments, he can be reached at 543-3266. If you have questions that you would like Dr. Bradbury to answer in the Delta Discovery, please send them to The Delta Discovery, P.O. Box 1028, Bethel, AK 99559, or e-mail them to [email protected]