Parents should not give up the battle for the book
Children are spending much more time reading from screens than the page. Tanith Carey asks how worried parents need to be
So we are already halfway through the autumn school term. And for many parents, that means a half-term holiday in which we pray for our children do something – anything! – other than stare blankly at their phones.
A few years ago, like a lot of children her age, my 13-year-old daughter, Clio, used to read a lot. But since going to secondary school – and getting her own phone – her default when she has a spare moment from homework or music practice is to reach for Snapchat and Instagram rather than a novel.
Indeed, over the past year, I’ve started to sense a wave of a mass panic, from every parent I speak to, that we are raising a generation who are turning into airheads – because no book, however brilliant, can compete with a game of Fortnite or a Netflix binge.
So must we simply accept that we are fighting a losing battle? And if we try to force our offspring to pick up a book, do we risk turning them off the printed page completely?
But actually, how worried should we be, really? Thanks to the internet, after all, our children have never read more words – or had access to more experiences. They can now browse hundreds of websites every day, and search any subject in seconds. In fact, research has found that the average person now reads as many as 100,000 words a day across their various devices.
Yet it’s how young people read now that is triggering concern, not least among cognitive scientists.
Humans are programmed for novelty so to a child brought up digesting fastmoving text, a page of printed words now feels dull. Research is finding changes in the way we take in information – the new norm is to jump around, scanning for words and skim-reading.
For children who may never have known the pleasure of being deeply immersed in a gripping novel, this can mean that they miss out vital details, get confused about what’s happening in the plot – and then give up.
Dr Jim Taylor, a psychologist and the author of Raising Generation Tech, says that too much phone time is changing the way children’s developing brains are wired – affecting their ability to concentrate and process information.
He believes we are in the midst of a giant social experiment and have yet to discover how it’s going to change our children’s brains. Book reading, Dr Taylor points out, has been compared to scuba diving, “where the diver is immersed in a peaceful place where they have to focus”, while using the internet has been likened to jet-skiing, “skimming along the surface at speed, surrounded by distractions, and only able to focus fleetingly on any one thing.”
For this reason, Dr Taylor believes it’s essential that parents set up good reading habits for children – difficult as that may be. “Excessive screen time prevents children from developing the ability to have a sustained focus, a requirement of reading,” he says. “Also, with the internet, everything comes in little bites, so children don’t learn to ‘deep dive’ into topics found in books. Patience is also a victim.”
So, it seems, is their mental health. A survey by the National Literacy Trust found that children between the age of eight and 13 who often bury themselves in a book are three times more likely to have high levels of mental well-being compared to those not engaged in oldfashioned reading.
But considering the digital world isn’t going anywhere, what is a modern parent to do? Cognitive neuroscientist Dr Maryanne Wolf, author of Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in the Digital World, believes today’s parents have to take deliberate steps for teach children to be “bi-literate”, so that they understand the difference between accessing information quickly online and deep book-reading.
In my own case, explaining to Clio that there is such a thing as two types of reading has helped. By reading books together, I have been able to show her that, while the gratification of a 500page novel is delayed, if she takes her time she will soon realise there’s more to Jane Eyre than a story about a miserable girl with a bad boss.
Child psychotherapist Becky Goddard-Hill, author of a new book of children’s activities, Create Your Own Happy, (Collins, £9.99), has also taken steps to make sure books and digital word comfortably coexist for her children Annalise, 11, and Frankie, 14. While they both have phones, at the start of every school holiday, Goddard-Hill, 47, takes the girls to her local bookshop in Nottingham and asks for recommendations that will have her children bursting to read.
At home, Goddard-Hill also sets up opportunities for reading. “We have phone amnesties where we go to a café for a hot chocolate and half an hour’s reading. When we go out for the day, I have them put phones away and bring a book instead.
“Every evening, their phones stay downstairs from 8pm and there’s a book and night light by their bed, ready. Yes, it’s a battle against the lure of screen. But as Annalise said to me the other day: ‘I like books so much because they take me to another world where anything is possible’.” As Clio is now also finding out, that’s an immersive experience she doesn’t get from her social media feed.
Tanith Carey is author of Taming the Tiger Parent, (Little Brown).
DIVING DEEP Psychologists say reading books helps children focus; Becky GoddardHill with her family, above