Straight Talk Advice

Oct 29, 2013

Society and kids big losers when kids don’t read

Dear Straight Talk: Every morning I drive my granddaughter to high school and observe all the kids, every hand gripping a cell phone. I've been in the newspaper business 46 years and I'd like to ask what young people today read. When they are on the Internet, are they surfing, social networking, or actually reading? Apart from school assignments, do they read newspapers, magazines and books? — Barbara Hale, Features Editor, Merced Sun-Star, Merced, Calif.

Shelby 16, Auburn, Calif. Ask me a question

I don’t read. I just don’t like it. Even Harry Potter I skipped. Sometimes on Facebook, I read a “fun fact” or gossip, but I’m not into politics or business. I have better things to do, and between homework, sports, and my social life, there’s no time.

Taylor 19, Placerville, Calif. Ask me a question

I don’t usually read. I wasn’t a good reader through school so I got turned off. On rare occasions I read magazines from supermarket checkout lines, but news doesn’t interest me because everything is spun and it’s overwhelming not knowing what to believe. Online, I strictly social network and get entertainment via YouTube.

Lara 17, Fair Oaks, Calif. Ask me a question

Before I became a socially-obsessed teenager, I read practically a book a day. I was raised without a TV, so books were how I amused myself. I especially love Steinbeck, Dickens, and Austen with their good human values. But now with school, sports and socializing, I prefer personal-development books because you can skip around and still learn. In tenth grade I lived with my dad in Europe and Europeans think Americans are really dumb because we are clueless about world affairs. That motivated me! On the Internet, I do social network but I avoid celebrity gossip. I get news from my email news feed and the ORF, an Austrian site with detailed world news.

Hannah 17, Auburn, Calif. Ask me a question

I didn’t used to like to read, but recently I started Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms. My mom keeps thinking it’s assigned reading! I don’t read magazines or newspapers at all. Even on Facebook, I don’t typically read news. My friends and I go to a celebrity website for guilty pleasure. It’s meaningless, but that’s what we do.

Lennon 22, Fair Oaks, Calif. Ask me a question

Aside from school reading, I spend about 30 minutes a day reading things like Popular Mechanics, Rolling Stone, the Sacramento Bee. I also read regularly for pleasure, maybe because I had no TV growing up and still don’t. Right now I’m reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I use the Internet for research and social networking, but I hate reading online; it physically drains me.

Geoff 23, Redding, Calif. Ask me a question

I use a customizable news feed that pulls from thousands of newspapers, magazines and online publications to give me the day’s politics, economy, technology, philosophy, video game news, etc. It's like reading 12 newspapers a day.

Dear Barbara: There's your answer. It's interesting that the two panelists (Lara and Lennon) who read a lot for pleasure both grew up without TV. A 2007 National Endowment for the Arts study correlates reading for pleasure, regardless of income, with academic achievement, political activism, cultural participation, even regular exercise. According to their study, young people age 15-24 average only seven minutes a day reading, half of those age 18-24 never read for pleasure, and only a third of high school seniors read at proficiency (the level needed to read this newspaper). Compare this to an average entertainment screen time of seven hours per day for kids age 8-18, cited in the American Academy of Pediatrics' 2013 policy statement. The personal and societal health costs of not reading are enormous.

Editor's Note: Finally, I'm not the only one imploring parents to limit screen time and not allow smart phones and laptops in kids' bedrooms! The American Academy of Pediatrics (who has long asked for zero screen time for kids under age 2), is now saying keep your kids' laptops and smart phones out of their bedrooms.

As Dr. Vic Strasburger, the 2013 policy statement's lead author and a professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico, said, "If you have a 14-year-old son and he has an Internet connection in his bedroom, I guarantee you, he's looking at pornography."

Thank you Dr. Vic! I have been saying the same thing for years. Porn is bad, indescribably bad, for your son's future sex life.

But that's not all that's bad about screen time — and good about the AAP's new policy statement. The AAP's report also implores parents to limit their kids entertainment screen time to two hours per day. Overexposure has serious consequences and is linked to violence, cyberbullying, difficulties in school, obesity, lack of sleep, and many other problems. I believe overexposure to screen time also plays a huge role in learning problems, attention deficit and other mental disorders — not to mention the deep spiritual vacuum we see in many kids today that leads them to drugs, alcohol, suicidal ideation, and other risky activities to fill the hole in their soul. 

Part of the problem is what is lost. When your kid is spending an average of seven hours a day being entertained in front of a screen (more time than is spent in school), he or she is not reading for pleasure, not running, not imagining, and not having the quiet time needed to develop a strong sense of "self". Parents need to wake up and smell the complete destruction of childhood and realize that they need to turn off the screens — really turn them off — in order to give their child a chance at growing up physically healthy, socially happy, with a fully-functioning neurological and sexual operating system. —Lauren

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