We have all heard how youngsters no longer have any time for reading. Indeed, so prevalent is the feeling that modern teens possess no literacy skills, that a number of possible explanations have been proposed. These usually involve cell phones or some other form of screen.
Teen Literacy: The Good News
So, it was with great surprise that I came across this graphic from 1843 (The Economist’s sister publication). It includes information on literacy and people’s reading habits. It compares how people of all ages spent their free time in 2006 and today, using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. These data show that 15- to 24-year-olds are spending roughly the same time today reading books as they did 10 years ago. This, despite the emergence of cell phones during that time.
Teen Literacy: The Bad News
Even though the change is negligible, so is the amount of time teens spend reading: some 10′ each day. Most of their free time is spent in front of a computer — although it is possible that the dramatic increase in computer time is also due to the fact that many youngsters now read on their phones. Still, computers and phones have taken over their social life and even decreased the time teens spend watching TV.
The greatest surprise, of course, is that Americans aged 65 and over (represented by the dark red bubbles) have also been gravitating towards their screens. They now watch about four and a half hours of television per day: 26 minutes. This is way longer than a decade ago, and 50% more than all other activities combined. The increase has been at the expense of thinking and reading, though pensioners still spend 80′ with their books and their thoughts – four times as much as young adults.
In some ways, this is a measure of the work we need to do to increase teen literacy. In others, it is a welcome reminder that people still love reading, as is it remains the 6th most popular activity in people’s lives. And yes, that is even true of teenagers.