One of my mom’s favorite anecdotes about me was that when I was younger I couldn’t keep my nose out of a book. Parents would come up to her in just about every public place— the grocery store, restaurants, the post office and parks — to point at me and ask, “How do you make her do it? My kids never read.” When I’d come home from the library with my backpack jam-packed with books, I’d curl up right on the couch, and I wouldn’t stop. I could tear through a book in a day and come up, yearning for more.
However, something’s changed for me in these past few years. I can’t say I’ve read more than five books for pleasure in the past year and, now, I mostly find myself only reading for class assignments or scrolling through my Facebook feed for articles by Bustle, Everyday Feminism, Cosmo or Marie Claire. I enjoy reading shorter articles, and my occasional “long-read” article, but I find myself struggling to get through a longer book. I will start one that interests me, but I can’t keep my attention into it long enough to get through the book. I’ll either go to my phone, look around at my surroundings, or just put it down altogether and go someplace else. As a writer, not being able to get through a book is maddening, and yet I seem to have hit a block, a block that many of my friends agree to suffer from as well. I used to love reading — what happened?
Americans Are Reading Less
Time reported in 2014, based on a study from the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, that the average American only spends 19 minutes a day reading — and millennials read even less. Common Sense Media also found in 2014 that 45% of 17-year-olds only admit to reading for pleasure a few times a year. Of course, these studies blame the prevalence of technology, wherein students are using their phones more than reading. Furthermore, the number of teenagers who say they remain faithful to paper books over e-books dropped from 66% to 58% between 2010 and 2014.
According to Vox, summing up how the average American spends their time in some nifty graphs, the older one gets, the more they read. In 2013, teenagers 15 to 19 only read for four minutes a day. These graphs showed that teenagers were spending more of their free time online. So, is technology to blame for the decline in reading?
One of the theories as to why we’re reading less is technological distraction. I’ve already admitted it. I’ll be reading one minute, distracted by my phone, the next. In 2010, The New York Times mused that this generation will be raised with differently wired brains — brains that can’t quite focus because we’re too busy jumping from one task to the next, to Facebook, to text messages, back to our homework, then to Twitter, to our book, and again to our email.
In my freshman year of college, I was tasked with presenting on the documentary, Out of Print, which examines the relationship between traditional books with our ever-changing, digital world. One idea that stuck with me was when a researcher in the documentary explained that the human brain isn’t wired to multitask, which makes even simply reading hard for our brain, as it requires absorbing long stretches of text, analyzing each word and sentence, and then understanding it. Now take the action of reading and combine it with our world, full of distractions. Even as I write this, the television is on to my right and my phone is buzzing with a text message to my left. If my brain couldn’t multitask before, it’s nearly impossible to now. I’m too distracted to read anything longer than an article on an online magazine.
Furthermore, with the sheer amount of distractions in our world, we’re absorbing less information. The Huffington Post reported that reading on screens, with the vast amount of links, ads, videos, and photos, makes it harder to focus and comprehend the text. Meanwhile, in classrooms, Inside Higher Ed reports that the usage of laptops and other technology in the classroom causes students to score lower on tests, which hints at an inability to absorb as much information and/or the ineffectiveness of digital note-taking.
In all, technology may not only be the reason why it’s hard to get through a book, but also why we’re not picking up books in the first place.
There’s Hope for Reading
Despite my own glum predicament, I will say there is hope for readers and reading alike. Lifestyle changes are in order. Just as I set aside a certain amount of time a day for exercise, I can set aside an hour a day to read. I can turn off my phone and resolve to lock my bedroom door and remain in a quiet environment for that time to ensure no distractions. However, I should also resolve to retrain my brain for fewer distractions. I can put my phone aside during solo meals as well and focus only on my food. When I read online, I can resist clicking on links or photos. I can learn to love to read again — only if I want to and am willing to put in the time and discipline.
Furthermore, studies show it’s a great time to read for people like me —that is, as a young woman. Bustle reported that although people are reading less, women and young people make up the majority of readers. This could mean more books targeted at this population or more writers reflective of this population — which is good news!
If you’re like me, once a reader, do not despair. There is hope for us. Now that you’ve spent some time reading this online article, scrolling through photos and links, are you ready to commit an hour or two to read a physical book? Because I am.