A librarian’s take on why so many teens stop reading

Common Sense Media released some discouraging news last week: when kids reach their teen years, they tend to read much less. At age 9, 53% of kids report reading daily. By age 17, only 19% do. Teens don’t seek out fun reading as much as they may have when they were younger; nearly half of all 17-year-olds say they read for pleasure only once or twice a year.


Follow Naomi on Twitter @yabooksandmore

Naomi Bates is a ‘teacher librarian with a twist of technology’ at a high school in Justin, Texas. Teens’ neglect of pleasure reading is no mystery to her, and she knows how to re-engage them. Last year, Bates launched a reading program in her school that incorporated Twitter, and the response was dramatic: 400 kids participated, and they read a total of 5,000 titles – an average of 18 books per student over the course of the school year.

Bates said Twitter was key to attracting students’ attention.

“When I tweeted about a particular book, kids asked about it,” she said. “They wanted to check it out.”

Bates used social media to engage kids because she knows why teens’ appetite for books wanes. Three things happen when they enter high school. First, there’s more competition for their time, and socializing takes precedence over reading. For many teens, joining groups is so much more important than spending time with a book.

“They’ll put in 20 hours a week on the football field,” Bates said, “but not on reading.”

Second, the amount of reading they’re required to do in their classes is higher than it was in middle or elementary school, and that leaves less time to read for fun. Third, technology that allows them to be connected to others occupies more of their attention.

“It’s about building their social lives,” she said, “and that really takes precedence.”

Many of the students in her school who are most enthusiastic about reading enjoy anime graphic novels, and they engage in discussion and interaction via social media with others about the books. By engaging more reluctant readers via Twitter, Bates taps into this adolescent drive to connect.

Bates also emphasized the need for parents to model reading at home. She said teens who see their parents reading and enjoying books are more likely to seek out reading in their spare time.

“Kids model parents’ behavior, and that’s what it boils down to,” she said. “You can’t just tell your kids, ‘you need to read more.’ Typically a teen’s attitude is, ‘well, you don’t do it, why should I?’”

Bates advises parents to expand their definition of reading when it comes to teens. E-books, magazines, comic books and graphic novels can all capture teens’ attention and open the door to a lifelong reading habit.


No zombies allowed

Boys jumping off a dock into a lakeJudy’s family has lived in three cities on two continents, and one thing has always set their home apart from those around them: there are no video games allowed.

Her sons, 11-year-old Warren and 8-year-old Andrew (right, on a lake vacation), are allowed to play them at friends’ houses, and she knows they generally favor sports games. But Judy does not allow them to play violent games, and she draws the line at having a console at home.

“I just don’t like it,” she said. “I don’t want it in my house.”

Her primary objection to such media is that she observes kids becoming hooked on them too easily.

When her kids are playing video games, she said, “they get this kind of zombie look that overtakes their expression.”

In contrast, when her boys are playing outside and having fun doing other things, she said they seem to forget what she refers to as the ‘siren call’ of media entertainment. Judy takes very seriously her responsibility to help her children make good choices regarding media.

“Your job as a parent,” she said, “is to teach them to resist stuff that gives them a quick high, but isn’t good for them in the end.”

She’s frequently surprised by comments she hears from other parents, when they say they don’t feel like they can really say no to all of their kids’ media demands.

“I was like, turn. It .Off,” she said. “You’re the parent.”

Judy knows how hard companies work to counter such actions by parents. She worked for many years in market segmentation, and observed first-hand the strategies and techniques companies use to target children.

As a parent, she said, she wants to protect her children from such manipulation, but also ensure they have the knowledge and experience with technology that they need in the 21st century.

At the start of this school year, she decided to let her 11-year-old have an old iPhone, to keep up with his peers. They went over the family rules about it, and talked about cyber bullying and other issues. Her son recently came home with a question that hints at the years to come:

“Someone said they want to be my friend on Facebook. What does that mean?”