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Kids These Days are Reading

News & Features | November 13, 2012

The common conception these days is that kids of our tech-savvy generation are reading less than our parents and less than our grandparents. Our generation is often charged with “losing sight of our roots” or “spending too much time hiding behind a screen,” spending too much time texting or tweeting and not enough time reading for the sake of reading.

These sterotypes ring true to a certain degree. Our generation’s definitions of study and leisure have been entirely altered over the past couple decades by innovations in technology. However, the conduct of our generation is far more nuanced than the majority of critics will admit, particularly when it comes to our reading habits. In fact, a recent Pew Center study found that we’re reading more than any other age group.

Today, children can often be found reading books that rival Tolstoy’s masterpieces in length, if not complexity. Many of the Harry Potter books, for example, are comparable in length to books like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. The study conducted by the Pew Research Center examines the prevalence of reading in different age groups. The Center results present a more optimistic look at our generation’s literacy patterns and methods of acquiring knowledge and shows that students between the ages of 16 and 29 are reading just as much as older generations, if not more. The study found that an average of 87% of high school- and college-aged students have read a book in the past year—an average higher than that of any other age group. Those above the age of 65 are the least likely to have read even one book over the course of a year. When it comes to our parents’ generation, there are approximately 20% fewer book readers in contrast. Contrary to popular belief, trends within the study establish that general reading patterns actually decline with age. Admittedly, one must acknowledge the occupations of the varying age groups when considering these percentages. Students’ primary obligations involve researching, reading, and writing, and they are therefore more inclined to read out of necessity. Looking down the scale, readers beyond the university age are more likely to have commitments other than reading and therefore to dedicate less time to books. Nonetheless, numbers alone show that our generation is in fact winning when it comes to number of individuals reading at least one book a year.

While a substantial portion of the younger generation do continue to read print books, one cannot overlook the role technology has played in the changing nature of reading. Critics of our generation correctly assert that we spend a fair amount of time behind a screen; however, new technologies in the field of literacy are revolutionizing the way in which we utilize this screen. The Pew Research Center also found that approximately one fifth of the younger generation consistently uses cell phones, laptops, tablets, or e-readers to access books. While this fraction of readers may seem relatively low at the moment, technology promises to become increasingly intertwined in the life of the younger generation. The study suggests that support for the e-reader movement will grow with improvements in infrastructure and resource accessibility.

Infographic: Book Readers by Age
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While the use of electronic readers has not yet skyrocketed, the future of physical books is at risk. The notion of books becoming obsolete is not a new idea, but it is not a ludicrous one, either. The benefits of paperless reading are vast, and in certain cases, e-readers actually encourage more reading among users. A college-aged panelist interviewed by Pew states, “I am reading more now that I have purchased an e-reader. I find that by having an e-reader I have developed a habit of reading in my spare time.” While this user’s sentiment towards e-readers may not apply to all current and future e-reader users, the appeal of these devices is evident. With the high potential growth rate in e-reader users, the face of literacy could change entirely. Critics of our generation ought to be more concerned with the future of print books and consequently the nature of the library system as whole.

While our generation’s desire to read remains strong, our appreciation for libraries is in fact experiencing decline relative to older generations. The Pew study found that almost half of all high school students say that the library holds little significance to them and their families. A similar lack of appreciation can be found in college-aged students, though this sentiment is far less pronounced. While high school- and college-aged students may not be appreciating libraries, this age group is more likely to be found at the library than any other. A mere 49% of those above the age of 65 have used a library in the past year, compared with 72% of high school library users. While we may not see the value in libraries as strong as older generations, we still visit them very frequently.

Libraries no longer serve primarily as buildings full of books, periodicals, and weathered documents. The resources offered by the library are expanding based on the expectations of a more technologically integrated lifestyle designed by the younger generation. Students now have a world of information at their fingertips, from research seminars to software demonstrations. Just as our reading patterns are beginning to change, our means of researching and library utilization is shifting as well. Seeing as the shift from print to digital texts has proven to be a positive one, the changing nature of research and libraries need not be automatically condemned. Instead, the changes brought about by technology in all forms of literacy must be embraced in order to reap the benefits of the digital age. According to another recent Pew study on research in the digital world, approximately half of the teachers interviewed believe that, “courses and content focusing on digital literacy should be incorporated into every school’s curriculum.” The overwhelming amount of digital information offered yields considerably more responsibility as a reader and researcher. In order to ensure that the age of digital literacy does not take on a negative connotation, the younger generation must learn how to best utilize this technology. As long as we accept and understand the malleable nature of reading and researching, levels of reading among younger generations do not seem to be at risk of decline. In this sense, the legacy of literacy and libraries is still very much alive among our generation.