Youth Culture Window

The Extinction of Reading


Middle school, high school, and college campuses have been quiet for the last three months. But now that students across the nation have returned to their studies, it’s time for them to hit the books.

Wait. What’s a book?

Exactly zero people were surprised when San Diego State’s resident kid-guru, Dr. Jean Twenge, released the findings of her institution’s report on adolescent reading behaviors from the past four decades: today’s kids prefer screens over pages. That’s right; instead of picking up a copy of The Great Gatsby like kids of yesteryear, today’s kids are much more likely to surf over to YouTube on their iPhones and watch the latest Dude Perfect video.

Granted, kids from the 70’s didn’t have access to the awe-inspiring technology that Gen Z assumes always existed, but modern day teenagers do have access to both…and they’re choosing the glowing screens instead of pages with staggering frequency. Some of the massive study’s findings include:

  • a third of today’s kids haven’t read a single book in the last year (even on a Kindle).
  • a third of sophomores from the 90’s read the newspaper; 2% of kids did in 2016.
  • 60% of seniors in the 1970’s read something daily; in 2016, just 16% of kids did the same.

In spite of popular bookstores like Barnes & Noble, public libraries, and of course, online delivery platforms such as Amazon, the results caused Dr. Twenge to admit that “reading has still declined precipitously.”

So what? Does the drop off in reading really matter?

Well, according to research conducted across the pond in the UK…yeah, it matters quite a bit! The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found that “reading for pleasure” during the teen years played a significant role in determining a person’s social mobility in the future.

Similar studies conducted by other members of the international community, this time in Japan, compared the brains of kids reading books to the brains of kids watching TV shows. Researchers found that the frontal lobes of the kids in front of TV screens thickened, which usually led to lower verbal reasoning abilities.

That same year, 2013, American scientists were conducting their own research on the minds of young people…but young people who were reading books. College students were asked to read Pompeii, a frantic and entertaining story about the eruption of Italy’s Mt. Vesuvius. The data showed that the students who’d read the book experienced an increase in the parts of their brains related to language. There was also a measurable increase in the sensory motor portion of their brains. In other words, reading brains were found to be growing brains.

Turning Pages
So, how can caring adults encourage kids to put down their screen of choice and pick up a book? Granted, the lion share of suggestions falls on the shoulders of parents, but youth workers can help, as well. Here are a few tips that might get your kids turning pages in the near future.

  1. Get books your kids will want to read! When our son was approaching entry into elementary school, I knew exactly what kind of books would get his attention: those written about a galaxy far, far away. Yep, I rented and/or bought anything I could get my hands on that told the story of droids and Jedis in small, simple words. Getting him to curl up in my lap and read me his books was never a chore. As he’s grown, we’ve kept watch over his changing interests and put books on his favorite subjects in front of him. So far, the habits have stuck and he’s a self-motivated learner.
  2. At the very least, make sure school-related reading gets done. Our son just entered 7th grade and he was introduced to summer reading this year. Just two books – and fun ones based on the conversations I had with him afterwards – so it was pretty painless as far as homework assignments go. Keep tabs on their reading assignments and ensure they’re doing them so they can keep pace with peers and meet expectations. Even if they’re not plodding through War and Peace until bedtime each night, make sure they’re doing the assigned reading (which is “usually” minimal).
  3. Read with them. No, you don’t have to read over one another’s shoulder, just get a few copies of a chosen book, and read through it as a family. You can jumpstart those important dinner time discussions by talking about what has already happened in the plot, and placing bets as to what will take place in the coming chapters. Again, it’s hugely important to let your kid(s) pick the book(s).
  4. Seek out books that provoke meaningful conversation. Like Jonathan McKee’s brand new novel BYSTANDERS, a sobering peek into a high school campus the days surrounding a school shooting. Books like this are great discussion springboards to talk about the stuff that matters. This book might be a little more edgy than your typical Christian book- that’s just because it truly depicts some of the language on a high school campus (truly PG, more mild than your kids hear every day), but its faith conversations are so real it provokes incredible dialogue.
  5. Read the Bible. Here’s a suggestion for the parents and student pastors who read our Youth Culture Window articles. Help your youth group take on Bible reading as a personal discipline by distributing reading plans, modeling it during discipleship times AND in your own life, as well as discussing it with them along the way. This has the potential to shape their life and change their eternity.

The benefits of reading are too many and too important to ignore. Yes, parents face many troubles as they raise their kids, and it’s tempting to place a lack of reading near the bottom of the totem pole. But invest a little bit of time into these ideas. Not only could it help your kids’ brains develop and grow, but the more your kids read, the less time they’ll have for those aforementioned “troubles.”



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David R. Smith

David R. Smith is the author of several books including Christianity... It's Like This and speaks to parents and leaders across the U.S. David is a 15-year youth ministry veteran, now a senior pastor, who specializes in sharing the gospel, and equipping others do the same. David provides free resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.

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