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

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - FAMILY LIFE -

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

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