CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom — Children who are avid readers and will pick up a book just for fun tend to develop into happier and smarter teenagers, a new study reveals. Researchers at the University of Cambridge discovered that reading for 12 hours a week is optimal for youngsters to foster bigger and better brains. The team identified strong links between recreational reading between the ages of two and nine, and performance in memory, speech, verbal learning, and general academic tests.
Moreover, young readers exhibited better mental health, with fewer indicators of stress and depression. They demonstrated improved attention spans and fewer behavioral problems such as aggression and rule-breaking, according to clinical scores and reports from parents and teachers. The team also found that these children slept longer and spent less time looking at screens.
However, almost half of the 10,000 teenagers studied had minimal exposure to reading for pleasure or did not start reading for fun until later in their childhood. The remaining 52 percent — according to the research conducted by the University of Warwick, Fudan University in China, and the University of Cambridge — spent between three and 10 years reading for enjoyment.
Reading really does make your brain bigger!
One key finding was that participants who began reading for pleasure at an early age had a “moderately larger” overall brain area and volume. This included regions crucial for cognitive function. Twelve hours a week was identified as the ideal amount of reading time; beyond this, researchers did not observe any additional benefits.
The researchers noted a potential risk of cognitive decline if children spend excessive time reading at the cost of other mentally enriching activities like sports and social interactions.
“Reading isn’t just a pleasurable experience – it’s widely accepted that it inspires thinking and creativity, increases empathy and reduces stress. But on top of this, we found significant evidence that it’s linked to important developmental factors in children, improving their cognition, mental health, and brain structure, which are cornerstones for future learning and well-being,” says Professor Barbara Sahakian from the Department of Psychiatry in a media release.
Unlike the skills of listening and speaking a language — which are developed rapidly and effortlessly among young children — the ability to read is a skill that is taught and cultivated over time. As our brains develop during childhood and adolescence, these years are vital for establishing behavior patterns that bolster cognitive development.
However, the impact of early reading had remained unclear until this study of 10,243 individuals provided valuable insights.
“We encourage parents to do their best to awaken the joy of reading in their children at an early age. Done right, this will not only give them pleasure and enjoyment, but will also help their development and encourage long-term reading habits, which may also prove beneficial into adult life,” concludes Professor Jianfeng Feng from Fudan University in China and the University of Warwick.
The study is published in Psychological Medicine and used data from the Adolescent Brian and Cognitive Development (ABCD) cohort in the U.S. Experts used information from clinical interviews, cognitive tests, mental and behavioral assessments, and brain scans.
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South West News Service writer Pol Allingham contributed to this report.