A third of teens haven’t read a single book in past year

Stunning research shows just 2% of sophomores read daily newspaper — compared to third of same-aged teens in 1990s

SAN DIEGO — Bookworm teens have always been few and far between, but now they seem like a dying breed. A new study puts some weight behind this notion by revealing just how American teenagers choose to spend their time (hint: it’s not with books). A third of adolescents haven’t even opened a dustjacket — or touched a Kindle for that matter — in the past year.

Researchers from San Diego State University recently analyzed four decades’ worth of data from an ongoing, nationally-based lifestyle survey studying teens. The data, which provides insight into the daily habits of over a million adolescents, shows the enormous impact of digital media over time.

The meteoric rise of internet-based activities cannot be understated: between social media, texting, gaming, and surfing the web, the average high school senior spent six hours a day online in 2016 — double the time from a decade earlier. Eighth graders (4 hours a day) and tenth graders (5 hours a day) didn’t lag far behind.

Naturally, many of these hours have come at the expense of traditional media, including books, newspapers, and magazines. In the early 90s, a third of tenth graders reported reading the daily paper — this figure dropped to an astonishing two percent by 2016. During the late 70s, 60 percent of 12th graders read a book or magazine almost daily, but only 16 percent did by 2016.

Interestingly, TV- and movie-watching has also declined in the face of new technology, although not as precipitously. Twenty-two percent of eighth graders reported watching five or more hours of TV a day in the 90s; only 13 percent watched an equivalent amount by 2016. Moviegoing held steadfast until recently; time spent has not decreased so much as mediums have shifted.

“Blockbuster Video and VCRs didn’t kill going to the movies, but streaming video apparently did,” explains Jean M. Twenge, the study’s lead author, in an American Psychological Association news release.

Still, the researchers remained most taken aback by how little teens read, especially in light of how easy it is to access quality reading materials today.

“It’s so convenient to read books and magazines on electronic devices like tablets,” Twenge says. “There’s no more going to the mailbox or the bookstore — you just download the magazine issue or book and start reading. Yet reading has still declined precipitously.”

Twenge suggests that today’s teens are no less curious or intelligent than previous generations. Many simply don’t have experience delving into long-form texts. Learning to do so is imperative, she argues, as it lays the groundwork for developing critical thinking skills and understanding complex issues.

“Think about how difficult it must be to read even five pages of an 800-page college textbook when you’ve been used to spending most of your time switching between one digital activity and another in a matter of seconds,” she empathizes. “It really highlights the challenges students and faculty both face in the current era.”

The study’s findings were published on August 16, 2018 in the Psychology of Popular Media Culture.