Teens Increasingly Choosing Screens Over Books and Reading

technology taking over books

Story at-a-glance -

  • Reading is a source of learning and entertainment, as well as an activity that can be done nearly anytime, anywhere
  • Research suggests 1 in 3 high school-aged teens no longer reads even one book a year for pleasure
  • Screen time for teens has tripled in the past 40 years and the average American 12th-grader spends about eight hours a day using the internet, social media, texting and TV; this figure does not include classroom, homework or job-related screen use
  • Modeling good reading habits to your child and reading to them daily beginning in infancy is the best way to instill in them a love of books and reading, as well as helping them to develop language skills

By Dr. Mercola

I love to read and make it my practice to read 150 books a year. As a source of learning and entertainment, reading can be done nearly anytime, anywhere. When combined with exercise, reading becomes one of the healthiest recreational habits you can have. My favorite time to read is during walks on the beach, using my Kindle.

Sadly, research suggests teens are spending more time texting and using social media than reading books. The fact that many teens seldom pick up a book is becoming widely accepted as normal behavior. Here’s what you need to know about this alarming trend and what you can do to instill a love of books and reading in children of all ages.

Screen Time for Teens Has Tripled in the Past 40 Years

A multiyear study1 published by the American Psychological Association reveals high school-aged teens spend more time texting and trolling social media than they do reading books and magazines. Researchers from San Diego State University analyzed data taken from an ongoing study called Monitoring the Future, which was launched at the University of Michigan in 1975.2

That study involves taking a national sample of about 50,000 eighth-, 10th- and 12th-grade students annually — asking them about their behaviors, attitudes and values.

The work is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The conclusions the San Diego State team has drawn on technology trends are supported by survey data collected from more than 1 million teenagers from 1976 to 2016. The study authors report:3,4

1 in 3 U.S. high school seniors did not read a single book (including e-books) for pleasure in 2016

82 percent of 12th-graders said they visited social media sites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter “almost every day” in 2016, compared to just 52 percent in 2008; there were comparable increases for eighth- and 10th-graders

The percentage of 12th-graders who reported using social media less than once a week declined from 27 percent in 2008 to 8 percent in 2016

In the mid-2010s, the average American 12th-grader reported daily totals of approximately two hours texting, just over two hours on the internet (including video gaming) and just under two hours on social media — for a total of about six hours of non-TV screen time

During the same time period, 10th-graders reported spending five hours and eighth-graders four hours per day on texting, internet and social media

Although TV use has declined, it still accounts for about two hours a day, which means 12th-graders now spend just under eight hours a day on screens — excluding classroom, homework and on-the-job screen time.

Screen time (TV only) in the late 1970s, prior to the widespread availability of computers and cellphones, was reported as about 2.5 hours a day, which means the use of screens has tripled in the past 40 years.

“Compared with previous generations, teens in the 2010s spent more time online and less time with traditional media, such as books, magazines and television,” said lead study author and San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge, Ph.D., author of the book “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood — and What That Means for the Rest of Us.”

“Time on digital media has displaced time once spent enjoying a book or watching TV,” she says.5  While the researchers noted little variance based on gender, race or socioeconomic status, they did observe girls spent more time on social media than boys, and boys reported spending more time playing video games than girls.6

Study Suggests Teens Have Little Time for, or Interest in, Traditional Media

Twenge’s research suggests the long hours spent in the digital world seriously diminish the time teens spend consuming traditional media like books, magazines and TV. The decline in reading print media has been particularly steep. According to the study results:7

  • While about 60 percent of high school seniors reported reading a book, magazine or newspaper every single day during the 1970s, only 16 percent of 12th-graders reported doing so in 2016
  • In the early 1990s, 33 percent of 10th-graders said they read a newspaper almost every day; by 2016, that number fell to just 2 percent
  • In the late 1970s, 60 percent of 12th-graders said they read a book or magazine almost every day; by 2016, just 16 percent did
  • In 2016, high school seniors also reported reading two fewer books annually compared to their counterparts in 1976
  • In the 1990s, 22 percent of eighth-graders reported watching five or more hours of TV per day versus 13 percent in 2016

“There's no lack of intelligence among young people, but they do have less experience focusing for longer periods of time and reading long-form text,” said Twenge.8 She suggests being able to read long-form text is an important life skill and necessary to ensure young people are able to understand complex issues and develop critical thinking skills.

The skill set and attention it takes to digest concepts in long-form writing are notably different than those needed to glance at a text message or status update, says Twenge.9

Concerning Tech Trends Impact College, Mood and ‘Text Neck’

Twenge, who is a mother of three children, suggests less time spent reading could translate to decreased interest in college or poorer performance in college.10 Beyond that, social media usage has been shown to contribute to mood issues and increased social isolation.

Teens who spend any time on Facebook or Instagram are sure to be inundated with photos and posts depicting other people's seemingly perfect lives. Even spending the average of 48 minutes a day on Facebook11 can stir up feelings of envy and covetousness, affect mood and well-being and even lead to depression, as noted in one study involving more than 700 college students.12

A 2015 Danish study13 involving 1,095 participants revealed causal evidence that Facebook negatively affects well-being. When comparing a group who took a one-week break from Facebook to a control group who continued using the social media site, researchers found taking a break from Facebook increased life satisfaction and induced positive emotions.

According to data provided by online measurement company SimilarWeb, U.S. users of social media spend, on average, the following amounts of time on social media daily:14

  • Facebook — 48 minutes
  • Instagram — 53 minutes
  • Snapchat — 49.5 minutes

To put the time spent on social media in context, consider the time spent daily on these other leisure activities:15

  • Watching TV and movies — 2.8 hours
  • Eating and drinking — 1.07 hours
  • Reading — 19 minutes
  • Participating in sports or exercise — 17 minutes

In terms of effects on your teen’s physical health from too much screen time, consider the relatively new health complication called “text neck,” which results from the damage a consistently forward-tilted head posture can have on the cervical spine. In a 2014 study published in Surgical Technology International, New York spine surgeon Dr. Kenneth Hansraj said:16

"The weight seen by the spine dramatically increases when flexing the head forward at varying degrees. Loss of the natural curve of the cervical spine leads to incrementally increased stresses about the cervical spine. These stresses may lead to early wear, tear, degeneration and possibly surgeries.”

What Can You Do to Encourage Your Teen to Read More?

Below are some suggestions for encouraging your teen to read more:17

Provide a healthy example by making reading a priority in your own life

Research specific topics and titles so you can suggest interesting books to your teen

Encourage your teen toward book series, which may fuel their desire to read more than a single title

Make reading a family activity and read books aloud to younger children

Consider giving small rewards for every five or 10 books read

Prioritize regular trips to your local library and invite a librarian to help your teen find books suited to his/her interest

If your teen is not a fan of reading traditional books, encourage them to listen to audio books or download e-books on a Kindle or other device

For teens, graphic novels may help spark interest in reading due to the abundance of pictures and age-appropriate themes

Talk to your teen about the interesting books you are reading

UK Study Finds Parents Are Spending Less Time Reading to Their Kids

An annual study performed by Nielsen Book Research, involving interviews with nearly 1,600 parents of birth to 13-year-olds and more than 400 parents of 14- to 17-year-olds, suggests parents are spending less time reading to their children.

While 69 percent of preschool children were read to daily in 2013, the figure slipped to 51 percent in 2017.18 In terms of the primary reason for not reading to their children, the survey revealed:

  • 19 percent of parents of 3- to 4-year-old children noted a lack of energy at the end of the day
  • 16 percent suggested their child preferred “to do other things”
  • 61 percent of parents were concerned about how much time their children spent in front of a screen

Regardless of the reasons for the decline in time spent reading to children, publisher Egmont, which contributed funding for the research, said the decline correlated with an increase in time spent by toddlers watching daily online video content.19

According to The Guardian, “Egmont warned that the ‘steep decline’ in reading to young children ‘signaled a significant threat to child development, with potential long-term social impact’.”20 About the survey results, Alison David, Egmont’s consumer insight director, said:21

“It’s no surprise parents of toddlers are exhausted — the pressure on families is enormous, especially as parents struggle to balance returning to work and meaningful time at home.

However, at such a crucial time in a child’s development, it’s essential parents understand the enormous benefits reading for pleasure will bring them and their child, both in terms of attainment and enjoyment.”

Reading Aloud to Your Child Helps Prepare Them for School and Life

In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics began recommending parents read aloud to their children from birth.22

Crucial aspects of brain development occur during the first three years of life, and reading aloud to your child during this time may help build their vocabulary and communication skills, among other benefits. Reading aloud to your child can help them:23

Build curiosity, memory and motivation

Cope during times of stress or tragedy

Develop a positive association with books and reading

Encounter new words, ideas, people and places beyond what they may encounter in day-to-day conversation or during screen time

Practice listening

Understand the meaning of language and promote language development

The Health of Your Teen Is Impacted by the Amount of Time Spent on Screens

The technology trends for teens paint a clear and convincing picture about the importance of monitoring and reducing the amount of time spent in front of a screen. Particularly if your child is approaching or exceeds the daily average of eight hours, it’s time to make a change.

Beyond the factors already mentioned, you will want to consider the potential negative health implications of continuous use of cellphones and Wi-Fi, which exposes your teen to untold doses of radiation that has been shown to cause:

  • An inability to focus on complex and long-term tasks
  • Decreased brain motor function
  • Diminished reaction time
  • Social and emotional problems

Computer screens and most light bulbs also emit blue light, to which your eyes are particularly sensitive because it's the type of light most common outdoors during daytime hours. Exposure to too much blue light during evening hours has been shown to disrupt melatonin production and increase alertness.24 According to the National Sleep Foundation, research shows:25

  • Children who use electronic media at night go to bed later, get fewer hours of sleep per week and report more daytime sleepiness
  • Adolescents with a TV in their bedroom go to bed later, have more difficulty falling asleep and have a shorter total sleep time
  • Sending texts or emails after initially going to bed increases daytime sleepiness among teens, even if it's done only once a week

For your peace of mind and the well-being of your child, require them to turn off their cellphone, computer, game system, tablet or TV an hour or two before bedtime. If they must use these devices after sunset, buy them a pair of blue-blocking glasses.

It’s Never Too Late to Inspire a Love of Books and Reading

Invest time early on to make reading to your child a daily habit. Read to them as infants and toddlers and continue reading to them daily until they are old enough to read to you. As they grow older, let them decide what to read or choose a book you both enjoy and take turns reading a chapter aloud each night before bed.

With respect to older teens, you may deem it too late to change well-established unhealthy tech habits. Before you decide it’s not worth the effort, you might try reasoning with them about the alarming trends and potential health risks of too much screen time. Your goal: Arm them with the facts and allow them to decide if it’s worth the risk.

You might be surprised at their reaction when you come to the conversation armed with helpful information about the increasingly negative impact of screens on American culture and health.

After all, it seems likely most older teens are able to recognize the downsides of too much technology, especially the kind that not only crowds out books and reading, but also may negatively impact their relationships and health.

For more information on how screens are affecting children, check out the video above, which highlights a documentary called “Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age.”26

This 2016 production, created by primary care physician and filmmaker Dr. Delaney Ruston, explores parental struggles over internet addiction, social media and video games with the goal of equipping parents and kids with solutions to promote balance.