In The Digital Age, Thankfully, Teens Are Still Reading

November 01, 2012
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, CA
CATEGORIES Parents and Families, Research & Studies, Students

If you’re concerned your students are shelving their favorite books or trading in their library card thanks to iPhones and e-readers, you may have little to worry about. A new study released by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that high schoolers, ages 16 and 17, are especially likely to have read a book in the last year or visited their local library.

According to researchers, 86 percent of 16- to 17-year-olds said they read a book in whole or in part, in any format, during the past 12 months. Whether or not these teens were reading for work or for school is unclear. However, researchers did look into the reasons for reading for a larger demographic.

Results showed that just over three-quarters of Americans ages 16-29 said they read solely for pleasure, compared with 81 percent of Americans ages 30 and up. This strong majority in both age groups may seem somewhat surprising to parents and educators of social media-savvy youth. Today’s teens often appear more accustomed to reading 140 characters or less than novels. But it is certainly exciting to see that younger Americans are still avidly interested in reading for their own enjoyment. Concurrently, 81 percent of those age 16-29 said they read for work and school, or to research topics of interest, and 73 percent said they read to keep up with current events.

The study also breaks down the formats teens are reading. For example, 77 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds said they read a print book in the past year, while only 12 percent said they read an e-book. Survey results found that, in general, high school-aged readers are less likely to read e-books than other age groups, a finding that is congruent with Bowker’s PubTrack Consumer study published last year. PubTrack Consumer found that teens have been slower to adopt e-books, and that only 8 percent of youth ages 13-17 prefer digital book formats over print.

As paid Content writer Laura Hazard Owen noted, this hesitancy to welcome e-books may be in part because teens do not see e-books as a “social technology,” and that there are still too many restrictions on sharing titles. In a recent interview with NPR’s David Greene, the study’s main author Kathryn Zickuhr also pointed out that, rather than relying solely on digital mediums to read books, the presence of e-readers has encouraged teens to own multiple copies of their favorite books in various formats.

Vice president of e-books at Barnes and Noble James Hilt attested to this trend in a recent interview with Publisher’s Weekly. “There’s a lot more evidence that [young adult] users are going back and forth between digital and physical,” said Hilt. “People are now buying more books when they become digital readers. The key is to have the book available in all formats.”

As a whole, researchers found that e-book consumers are not interested in choosing one medium over another. “We heard from e-book readers in general [that] they don't want e-books to replace print books. They see them as part of the same general ecosystem; e-books supplement their general reading habits,” said Zickuhr.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that e-books are not confined only to tablets or e-readers. In fact, many young e-book readers were more likely to read long-form content on cell phones, desktops, and laptops. As the Pew results showed, among Americans who read e-books, those under age 30 were more likely to read their e-books on a cell phone (41 percent) or computer (55 percent) than on an e-book reader (23 percent) or tablet (16 percent).

In addition to a preference for print formats, study results found that 16- and 17-year-olds also relied more heavily on libraries than to other age groups. Teens are more likely to have used library services in the past year, especially checking out print books and receiving research assistance.

Unfortunately, while teens exhibited a certain preference for libraries, they are less likely to say that libraries are important to them. Zickuhr said that, to combat this, many libraries are looking for new ways to engage with young readers, such as providing activities just for them. “Some libraries even have diner-style booths for the teens where they can just socialize and hang out, and so that they can think of the library as a space of their own,” she said. Chicago’s main library downtown and several branches, for example, are home to YOUmedia sites, where teens can intermix digital media with traditional books. In one project, teens remixed the “One Book, One Chicago” choice “Neverwhere” in their own vision using video, spoken word, and music.

Whatever its form, reading and getting lost in a book is something every child should encounter.  Take a trip to the library with your kids. Introduce them to the world through books. They’ll thank you for it later.

For parents looks for more ideas on how to keep your teens reading, Adolescent Literacy has provided a list of tips taken from its 2008 resource, “How Parents Can Encourage Teens to Read” [pdf].

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