Electronic devices are everywhere. We know about the negative effects of too much TV, but now kids are watching videos in the car and accessing games and social media on computers and mobile devices.
There was a time when kids would snuggle up with a good book to read or have their parents read to them. Yet several experts say that reading is down among all people, including the critical childhood years.
Dana Gioia, a Catholic poet and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, says people are reading less, and reading less well. That situation imperils not only their future career prospects but deprives young people of a rich imaginative life as well. As head of the NEA, he oversaw two reports: Reading at Risk and To Read or Not to Read
“Our society is losing an extremely important collective skill, which is high-level reading,” said Gioia, who now teaches at the University of Southern California. “The younger you are, the more severe the decline.”
Gioia said that boys are most affected by the decline. “Boys read less and read less well,” he remarked.
The reading crisis even reaches higher education. As a professor of Poetry and Public Culture, he observes college “kids who dwell almost entirely in the electronic now.” A recent USC study found that the average American now watches 14 hours a day of screens. The number is slightly higher for teens.
The situation might be okay “if what people were doing on the internet is reading traditional texts, but they really aren’t,” he said. “They’re looking at films and videos, and when they’re reading, what they’re reading are photo captions. When people read on the internet they tend to read no more than 17 words at a time.”
Joseph Pearce, writer-in-residence and visiting fellow at Thomas More College, agrees with Gioia’s general assessment. “In society as a whole, reading is suffering, and it’s going to have very negative, disastrous consequences,” he said.
Without reading, human formation suffers, Pearce added.
“Reading helps stretch our imaginations, which itself is very important,” Pearce said. It also expands vocabulary, allowing a person to communicate “far better, not only in childhood but throughout the rest of their lives.”
“We write as well as we read; we think as well as we read; we speak as well as we read. Our thoughts are in words,” Pearce said. “If you have a limited vocabulary, our very ability to think is hampered.”
Gioia outlines four benefits of reading. “You’re training your ability to focus attention,” he said. Reading “develops a mental capacity for sustained, and I would say linear, attention — focusing on one thing rather than multi-tasking, which is what the internet encourages us to do.”
He continued, “Secondly, when reading a book… my mind has to take all those abstract words and provide images. Reading develops your imagination and your memory — because you’re pulling these things from memory and imagination.”
Further, stories helps the reader “see other people’s lives. It’s a sustained exercise of meditating other people’s lives,” Gioia said. It “develops empathy and understanding that other people have lives as complex as you — both inner and outer lives as complex as yours. And this proves absolutely crucial in developing a sense of who you are.”
Finally, coming to understand through reading that other people have complex lives, “you tend, I think almost automatically, to develop a sense of ‘Well, so do I.’ You start to compare theirs and yours, and what you develop—I think this is one of the things we’re losing — is an inner life of your own.”
Screen vs. Page
Peter Kleponis, a psychologist at the Institute for Marital Healing, agrees that there is greater value in reading a printed book than reading on a screen. When a person goes into a library, he said, “you can browse through the books, you can flip through them, and with an e-reader you browse through a menu on a screen.”
As a family therapist, Kleponis sees families spending less and less time together, with parents working hard and kids over-committed in sports and other activities.
“I ask ‘How often do you sit down and read to your children or take them to the library?’” he said. “A lot of them don’t do it because they have all these sports and music and art and other activities. And they’re not bad, but there has to be a balance. We’re losing a sense of family life.”
All three experts agree that parents need to be more active in getting their kids to read. That includes taking them to libraries and book stores, limiting time spent online and being readers themselves.
“I have two sons who were in good schools, neither of whom in their teenage years read much,” said Gioia. “In fact, they claimed they didn’t enjoy reading. There were many other things — video games, Facebook, TV, etc. — that they really wanted to do instead. I simply created time when they were not allowed to do any of the electronic diversions, and they had to either sit there in silence or they could read. They complained, they moaned, they groaned. Six months later they were eager and happy readers because kids have to get over the hump of developing those mental muscles reading requires.”
‘Turn Off the TV’
Pearce and his wife, Susannah, read to their two young children — classic authors such as Beatrix Potter, Laura Ingalls Wilder, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Kenneth Grahame — and limit the amount of time they can watch videos and use the computer.
“We ensure that every day they are either read to or are reading,” he said. “It’s important to see that the use of the computer is limited to a certain amount of time each day, and that only as a reward for having done things that are more important, which includes reading.”
Time is of the essence, Gioia points out: “Reading skills peak at about the age of 11, and by 13, which is the age when kids begin to make a little distance from their parents and begin to submerge themselves in internet, video games, TV, etc. growth in reading ability begins to stop.”
Being an example is, naturally, important. “The main reason adults claim they have become readers was that their parents read to them,” said Gioia. “The second reason that they claim they became readers is that they saw their parents read. So if the parent says, ‘Get the hell out of here; I’m reading a book,’ that’s better than nothing.”
Providing advice, he said, “So what parents should do when they’re younger is read to them so they get used to hearing words, rather than just watching television. And then as the kids get old enough that they don’t want to be read to anymore, have them read. Take the iPad away. Turn the TV off. Turn the computer off. Be confident that as a parent you know some things better than the kids do, no matter what the kids tell you.”
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