One evening last week, I collapsed into bed after homework was finished, lunches were packed, and bedtime stories were read and happened upon an impassioned Los Angeles Times op-ed by high school political science teacher Jeremy Adams. In it, Adams decries his students’ lack of interest in reading and places the blame squarely on smartphones. My kids are still young, but I’m always thinking of how to instill in them a passion for books, so I read on...on my smartphone.
Adams is certainly correct that teenagers aren’t reading nearly as much these days; one 2016 study suggests a third of U.S. teenagers haven’t read a book for pleasure in the past year. The authors found that digital media has supplanted consumption of “legacy media” like books and magazines across racial and ethnic groups, gender, and socioeconomic status, so much so that “the percentage of 12th graders who read a book or a magazine every day declined from 60% in the late 1970s to 16% by 2016.”
Meanwhile, a 2018 UK study found that secondary students aren’t selecting challenging books as they often do in primary grades—a choice that does not support sustained reading comprehension and has concerning implications for success at the college level.
These findings are worrisome; but what I find equally troubling is many adults’ blanket derision of phones and teens’ engagement with digital media. Rather than demonizing devices or fretting about our current technological landscape, let’s focus instead on the foundational skills of reading, like reading efficiency (the physical act of reading), motivation and self-confidence, and comprehension—which are more important than ever.
Like it or not, smartphones and teens’ social media use aren’t going anywhere any time soon. It seems to me that setting young people up for reading success within this environment is a more worthwhile cause than wishing they’d spontaneously pick up more Hawthorne and Vonnegut.
To that end, I’ve culled some tips that can be shared with students’ parents, as well as other educators and change makers working to support teens’ literacy and foster their lifelong love of reading—while growing up in the real world of smartphones and screens.
1. Keep Panic at Bay
It can be helpful to think about public reactions to the imbalance of teens’ phone time vs. reading time in a broader historical and cultural context. Historically, mass culture has always been fodder for moral panics, from mid-century fears about television’s effects on youth, to more recent debates on the connection between video games and violent behavior. These reactions, in retrospect, often end up being more about the disruption of social order than the inherent dangers of technology. So while teens’ disinterest in longform reading is reasonable cause for concern, it isn’t cause for full blown panic.
2. Be a Good Role Model
If your goal is to inspire your teens to read more, make reading a habit for yourself. Be mindful of your own aimless phone scrolling because that old adage, “Do as I say, not as I do,” does not cut it with the teenage set. Limit your own screen time, and make room for reading in your daily routine, whether it’s on a phone or on paper.
3. Be a Digital Ally
Be a champion of reading in all its forms rather than the phone police.
You don’t have to stop at behavior modeling. Most parents and mentors know that reading to younger kids regularly has a positive effect on literacy and more, but spending screen time together can also be beneficial. Of course, as kids age, spending screen time together becomes hard, but taking a genuine interest in your teen’s digital pursuits opens up lines of communication and supports their savviness. This positions you to be a champion of reading in all its forms rather than the phone police.
4. Avoid Coercion
While it might be tempting to enforce designated reading time for less than eager teens, don’t employ coercion in the process. Don’t force teens to read what you want them to or take away devices until reading occurs. This will only sour them on the pleasures of reading.
5. Make Good Content Accessible
To foster a more organic love of reading, make good content accessible at home, at school, and on the go. Leave interesting books around the house. Collect old favorites for your students on a school bookshelf. If you’re trying to reduce the number of physical books in your space, introduce your teens to Goodreads or even one of the many chat-based story platforms like Hooked or Wattpad’s Tap app, which combine the sensibility of Twitter with reading and storytelling for teens. Most libraries also lend digital content these days; listening to audio books or podcasts in the car can spark an interest in reading, too.
6. Expand Your Reading Repertoire
The key here is leveraging your teen’s interests to support her or his reading success.
It can also be helpful to expand your definitions of what good content looks like. The key here is leveraging your teen’s interests to support her or his reading success, even if that means learning about and curating content outside your own comfort zone. If that means more graphic novels, great. Fan-fiction on Wattpad? Sure. Reading content they love can help teens be more efficient down the line.
7. Celebrate the Positive
While the hope of many teachers and parents is to encourage teens to put down their phones and pick up a book more often, there is still room for celebration when it comes to teen literacy in the digital age. The 2016 study I mentioned at the outset also found that, while teens are reading less, they’re also watching less television these days—an activity that’s long been a source of anxiety for parents. The study didn’t take engagement with online periodicals or news into account, but these are easily accessible via social media. (Of course, news consumption is also an area where teens need mentorship.) Mostly, it’s helpful to remember that today’s teens are dealing with a lot of pressure and anxiety in academic and personal spheres. They deserve adults’ support more than our disdain.
I hope my kids become avid readers as they grow older; at the same time, I hope I judge my success in helping them get there by how engaged they are with content, not by how they access it. As for me, I’ll still be doing some scrolling after wending my way through my evening routine. But next time, I’ll be sure to open up my Kindle app a little sooner.