Into Reading or Into Themselves? An Analysis of Teens, Technology, and Literacy

The Pew Research Center recently released 2018 survey results revealing that 95 percent of teens say they have or have access to a smartphone. While this is hardly surprising to anyone with eyes, I gasped at the speed with which the devices have become ubiquitous; in Pew’s 2014–2015 survey, only 73 percent of teenagers said they owned a smartphone.

Even more alarming to me is the fact that 45 percent of those surveyed report that they use the internet “almost constantly”—almost double the number who said the same in the 2014–2015 survey. The rate of change suggests that in a few years, all students will be online all of the time. What effect will this have on their reading and thinking? What effect has it already had?

Reading is a very different intellectual process from broadcasting oneself online. When students read, they gaze outward to a larger world. Readers travel albeit vicariously to other times, other lands. Books offer insight into lives that are unlike their own. Social media, on the other hand, foster solipsism.

Teenagers, of course, are and always have been natural solipsists. As a long-time teacher, I saw firsthand how their fixation on themselves and their friends often became claustrophobic. Social media can exacerbate this. Composing nonstop virtual storylines of their lives on YouTube (85 percent), Instagram (72 percent), and Snapchat (69 percent), teens find themselves caught up in a seductive hall of mirrors.

Teens fear that if they step away from social media even for a moment they will be sidelined. They are afraid of missing out, falling behind—afraid that their online community will move on without them and unless they broadcast themselves they will be forgotten. Again, there is nothing new about this adolescent fear. But the pressures of online performance increase their neurosis exponentially.

While it is not within a teacher’s power to pry smartphones from students’ hands, we can invite the teenagers in our care to open a book for a draught of fresh air. Reading demands that we look outward, beyond the familiar boundaries of our lives. It stretches our imaginations. Reading also teaches us that we are not alone. James Baldwin identified this experience when he wrote, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”

Like most bibliophiles, I don’t read and never have read to improve my comprehension skills. I read because I am hungry to know more about, well, everything. I love being able to click and have a book at my fingertips and adore having hundreds of books at my fingertips wherever I may be. It would be foolish to reduce our response to the Pew study to a lament for the good old days. You know, there never were any good old days. 

How can we teach teens more about the power of reading and the importance of connecting to the world in an intentional way? Get answers to this question and more during an HMH Facebook Live that we will host with Carol Jago at ISTE on Tuesday, June 26 at 10:30 CT. You can also learn more about HMH’s K-12 reading and literature programs and solutions here.