I just finished a fantastic fiction book. It was the kind of story that is totally engrossing, capturing your interest and imagination in such a way that you want to read slower just to delay the ending and prolong the experience. Shortly afterward, I read an article about the decline in reading among children (and many adults). This is a trend that I have noticed as an educator, and it makes me sad for many reasons. Over the years, I have had parents ask me whether it’s worth it to continue to push their kids to read. My answer remains “yes”, as I suspect that the act of getting “lost in a book” offers something that can not be replaced or duplicated by television, digital media, or video games.
A recent study by Common Sense Media found that fewer than 20 percent of 17-year-olds read for pleasure “almost every day.” Compare this to 1984 when 31 percent did. Today 22 percent of 13-year-olds and 27 percent of 17-year-olds say that they “hardly ever” or never read for pleasure as compared to 30 years ago when only 8 percent of 13-year-olds and 9 percent of 17-year-olds said this. In case you are thinking that this is a problem only affecting kids or the uneducated, surprisingly, a recent Pew Internet and Life Survey recently found that 42 percent of college graduates will never read a book again after graduating college. In contrast, children under 8 spend an average of an hour and half per day watching television, and children between the ages of 8 and 18 watch an average of 3 hours of television per day, not including computer or other screen time.
So, you may ask, what’s the big deal? Perhaps they are just reading differently or perhaps reading has evolved. Why is traditional fiction reading so important?
1. Reading improves “theory of mind” (or self-awareness and empathy) while television reduces it. Studies conducted at Emory University’s Center for Neuropolicy found that getting outside of themselves or losing themselves in a good story allows kids to empathize with a variety of fictional characters, making them more likely to act with compassion and self-awareness. Whereas, the ability to attribute mental states - beliefs, intents and desires to ourselves and to understand that others may have beliefs, intents and desires that are different from our own - is decreased when children watch television.
2. Reading enhances brain connectivity and neural activity.Reading causes changes in areas of the brain associated with language receptivity and visualization. Reading seems to jog the brain and increase its performance, creating a sort of meditative or focusing effect, while television’s effect is often the opposite.
3. Reading can have a corrective effect on the sensory overload caused by digital media.
According to David Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, reading can demonstrate to kids that there is a payoff in doing something difficult, in delayed gratification.
So, even though it is a bit early to use research to draw any conclusions, it seems like common sense that we should encourage our children to read instead of turning on the television. It may do a great deal to not only increase their compassion and ability to relate to others, but also have an impact on their focus and even their work ethic.
-Nina Parrish, M.Ed.