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Is reading too much bad for kids?

Clinging to print can isolate kids and alienate them from the digital world of multitasking

My wife and I have a 7-year-old who reads the way a chain-smoker smokes. He can put on a soccer uniform while turning the pages to “Captain Awesome”; we’ve had to forbid him to bring “Encyclopedia Brown” to the dinner table. Most of the time, he’s as ornery as any boy his age. But give him a book about birds or leprechauns and he’s hypnotized.

Some people consider this downright odd. A woman who spotted our son sunk into a book — a paper book rather than a Kindle, no less — in a coffee shop in California’s high desert a few months ago couldn’t believe what she was seeing. “He’s like a kid in the movies!” she shouted. That may have been a compliment; I can’t quite tell. (Maybe she’d been watching Wes Anderson?)

Our concern is whether he will find some other kid who shares his enthusiasm. So far, he hasn’t. 

“I can’t get my students to read whole books anymore,” Duke professor Katherine Hayles lamented at a Phi Beta Kappa meeting a few years back. She wasn’t dreaming. "I don't read books," a 2008 Rhodes Scholar, Joe O’Shea, said at a leadership summit at Florida State, where he was student-body president. "I go to Google, and I can absorb relevant information quickly … Sitting down and going through a book from cover to cover doesn't make much sense." To technology enthusiast Don Tapscott, who had convened the meeting, “O'Shea is a shining example of a generation that thinks and learns differently from its forebears,” he wrote later. “The differences stem from their immersion in digital technology. By the time they're in their 20s, the Net Generation, as I call them, will have spent more than 30,000 hours on the Internet and playing video games.”  

Are we doing our son a disservice by allowing him to become a deep and engaged reader? Are we raising a child for the 19th century rather than the 21st, training him on the harpsichord for an Auto-Tune world? 

Maintaining an attachment to print these days may be a bit like taking the horse and buggy to work.
Getty Images

Of course, if you want to somehow frame reading books as irrelevant, antique or frivolously eccentric, you don’t have to look very far to find support. “Reading Won’t Make You a Better Person,” blared a recent New Republic headline. Books, we hear, are for losers, or elitists, or people who collect 78s. The pro-digital crowd is increasingly in charge of education, as school districts spend their money on iPads rather than books or librarians.

Opponents to deep, immersive reading come from all directions. Among American boys, there remains a generations-old sense that books are for sissies; I remember this from my own childhood. For neoliberals and technocrats, reading novels is not “what the market wants.” Concentrated reading doesn’t require ideological opposition to be endangered: The pace of contemporary life, even for children, means that there’s simply no time or energy left for it. 

There are some things that are common to every human society. Speaking is one of them. Reading and writing are not on that list.

Marc Prensky

Media and technology writer

Clinging to print these days may be a bit like taking the horse and buggy to work. But doesn’t reading make us more human? Isn’t it a universal sign of civilization? Not really, says Marc Prensky, the media and technology writer who originated the term “digital native.” “There are some things that are common to every human society,” he says. “Speaking is one of them. Reading and writing are not on that list.” In the classical world, we forced ourselves to do something neither natural nor inevitable, he explains, but that solved a problem: After a while, there was so much information that it needed to be written down so it wouldn’t be lost. But that, Prensky says, doesn’t make print somehow exalted.   

In fact, Socrates never wrote anything down and Plato’s warnings about writing are often used by digital utopians as a lash to beat skeptics. In the West, silent, individual reading was not widespread until the 17th century. And of course, Shakespeare only wrote his plays down because he needed a way to record their language for his actors: The central work of the most enduring writer in English was never meant to be read silently on the page. Prensky has described books as “primitive tools,” and he looks forward to the day when a university bans paper books from campus.

“Reading was the best we had for centuries,” Prensky says. “That was it. Before the middle of the 20th century, the way most educated people learned about the world was through reading; reading became for our generation this sacred thing. But today’s kids learn about the world in a lot of different ways — movies, game-playing, television. Reading and writing don’t disappear, but the ecology changes.”

It was a bit shocking to read, in 2005, that “Everything bad is good for you” — the title of Steven Johnson’s book about the nourishment to be found in electronic culture. These days, it’s as familiar as someone telling you that TV shows are the new novels, or that they don’t have time for books anymore. 

What we know from 50 years of psychological research, including on young people in the digital environment, is that the more things you do, the worse you do all of them.

Art Markman

Professor of psychology, University of Texas

One thing people on various sides of this argument agree on is that human life has changed enormously over the last few decades, and will change even more for the next generation.

Cognitive scientist Art Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, points out that the baby deer around Austin are able to function independently within days of birth. His own teenage sons, by contrast, still depend on him for support. Humans require far more “programming,” and unlike most other animals, learn primarily through language and storytelling. This allows human beings to go further, but it takes a while. Games and movies can do some of that, he concedes. “But you don’t get the inner psychology you get from novels,” he says. “Where you see not only the surface, but a viewing into a thought process.”

What about digital enthusiasts who advocate multitasking? “The human brain doesn’t really multitask,” Markman says. “It time-shares. It only multitasks when something is a habit. But if there are several things you’re doing at once, that require some executive function, you’re switching back and forth rapidly. What we know from 50 years of psychological research, including on young people in the digital environment,  is that the more things you do, the worse you do all of them. Full stop.” (Magnetic resonance imaging backs up what he says.)

Today’s real danger, Markman says, is not that kids will read too many novels, but that they’ll absorb our age’s superficiality. A novel, an opera or a long film can remind us how complex life really is.

But couldn’t complexity be taught by a video game or TV show — both of which are getting more sophisticated all the time? Shervaughnna Anderson-Demiraz, who heads an educational research group at UCLA that trains teachers, says it’s the very slowness and awkwardness of old-fashioned reading that’s important. 

“Kids are used to getting an instant answer. But when you have words on paper, and you’re turning pages, your brain has to store that information in short-term memory; it’s a different way of processing.” -- Shervaughnna Anderson-Demiraz, UCLA
Marvin Joseph / The Washington Post / Getty Images

“Kids are used to getting an instant answer,” she says. “But when you have words on paper, and you’re turning pages, your brain has to store that information in short-term memory; it’s a different way of processing.” Part of what kids learn from this is patience, as well as what she calls productive struggle. It’s the mental version of running five miles and coming out stronger and healthier. New technology is typically championed because it turns kids on, or because politicians think it will be cheaper; L.A.’s school district is giving its students iPads. But she’s skeptical that it’s better than reading a traditional bound book.

Markman, in fact, asks students planning to go into business to read novels. Concentration is crucial. “The people who develop the skill of sitting in a corner and reading a book,” Markman says, “have tremendous benefits across their lives.” A lot of learning, he says, especially what’s called causal knowledge, comes from “sustained effort and attention,” from moving into solitude and focusing over time.

The old stuff, he says, still works. “You look at every human development — farming, the printing press, industrialization — and you look at the art of that period, the stories and the philosophical writing, [and] you see that human nature hasn’t changed,” he says. 

Bookstores are closing; libraries are having budget problems. If you aren't passing on the beauty of reading to kids, there are way too many things in the world that will overwhelm that urge.

Jason Boog

Author of "Born Reading"

Some of these worries were most forcefully expressed 20 years ago by the literary critic Sven Birkerts in “The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age.” Birkerts had to stop talking about the book and its concerns for a while, he says, because he was tired of being framed as this gloomy Cassandra.

The other day, riding Boston’s subway, he looked up from a moment of concentration and realized that something had changed. “Every single person either had a wire coming out of their ears or a small screen in their hands,” he recalls. “We’re not talking about some upcoming future. It has arrived.”

These days, he sees the issue as concerning more than just print. “Either reading or sinking into a painting or a piece of classical music requires a fostering of attention. It’s a required medium for certain things to thrive. But our attention is being taken from us,” he says. “There used to be this idea that some things were deeper than others, that literature and the arts were the main road to understanding what life was about. People apprenticed themselves to that.” It’s not just serious culture that suffers when that fades away. It’s the self-reliance Emerson spoke about: As we wire ourselves into the same network, “individualism is becoming a kind of throwback.” And a kid who sits in the corner reading a book by himself, with technology turned off, might as well be wearing a monocle.

Another monocle-wearer came into the world a few years ago, and her father is as concerned as I am. “I feel strongly that my daughter’s generation will be facing this tough transition,” says Jason Boog, whose 3-year-old daughter’s love of books inspired his upcoming “Born Reading,” a guide to “Bringing Up Bookworms in a Digital Age.” Our kids, he says, “could be the first generation to abandon print.”          

Around the time Boog moved to Los Angeles a few years ago, his neighborhood’s Village Books shut down. “It’s very easy for my daughter to have no connection with books whatsoever,” he says. “Bookstores are closing; libraries are having budget problems. If you aren’t passing on the beauty of reading to kids, there are way too many things in the world that will overwhelm that urge. It will take some effort.”

He’s not allergic to ebooks or storytelling apps, and recommends a few. But Boog insists that kids younger than two should be read to by a human being instead of plugged in, and worries that some families will use technology as a substitute. Will kids whose reading experience is primarily interactive, or who read on a device that encourages them to surf the web at the same time, grow up to see print books – the kind that requires only an engaged imagination to come alive – as ebooks without the fun stuff? 

The impact of those distractions was quantified a decade ago, before Boog’s daughter or my son were even born: In 2004, the National Endowment of the Arts released its Reading at Risk study, which showed reading declining among every demographic group, especially young people. The essayist Richard Rodriguez, who became a fierce reader and lyrical writer despite being raised by parents with little formal education, sees it all the time. “When I go to schools nowadays,” he says, “faculty members usually ask me not to lecture for more than 10 minutes, because the darlings aren't able to sit still and listen anymore. ‘Try to be interactive,’ one teacher said to me a few weeks ago.”  

So, should we be proud that we’re raising members of a small, monkish caste, or worry that they’re marginalizing themselves? On reflection, I realize it’s not my son, or Boog’s daughter, who needs to change: The culture they’re growing up into has lost its sense of what matters. But parenting is not just about preparing kids for careers; it’s about asserting values, and serious reading may be what my family has instead of a religious or ethnic identity. If my son’s peers, or the culture at large, find another god to worship, it will be their loss.

“Let your son be,” Rodriguez says. “I think he will face a world increasingly grown dull and disinclined to concentrate on any one thing for more than a few seconds.  That may be a great difficulty for him.  Or he may have a prophetic life — as orator, romancing the world back to its senses and the bravery of solitude.”  

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