Monday, July 25, 2016

Electronics and the Unreading Habit

The question this week comes from a mom of two teen boys. “They are both good readers,” she explains, “but do not read for pleasure, only if required. Part of the problem, I’m sure, is the way they spend too much time with electronic entertainment. Do you have any ideas how to wean them off those and replace electronics?”

It’s one thing to recognize a problem, and another to find an appropriate solution. Electronic devices truly hamper the reading habit. There is evidence that time on screens physiologically affects the way our brains function. But, even if we are honest enough to face this truth, how do we go about changing behavior that has become a lifestyle for most children today?

Ten years ago, when Emily and I presented workshops on the use of living books, or reading in general, I would try to gently suggest to parents that they evaluate the effect screens were having in their home. I pointed out the practical contrast between the two pastimes. Which is easier for a child?—to sit passively, barely move a muscle of a finger, and receive constant exciting images, or, hold a book, turn its pages, track with the eyes, and actively exert effort for observation, analysis, reasoning, logic, translation and comprehension, while simultaneously creating images from scratch? I ask you, given the choice, which would the average boy pick?

Then, I began observing in our library the slow disenchantment with reading that even some of our most eager young readers experienced. One year they were bounding in the door, eager for more, chattering about their latest book adventures, and the next they were apathetically wandering around and indifferent to suggestions, or, staying in the car to play electronic games or watch DVDs while mom got their books. Curious about the connection of electronics and reading, I began reading articles like this one and research on the subject from books like The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr, Endangered Minds by Jane Healy, The Plug-In Drug by Marie Winn, Thirty Million Words by Dana Suskind, The Trouble with Boys by Peg Tyre and Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv.

And I found that it was not just a personal suspicion. I became less gentle in my workshops about the detrimental effect of screens on reading, and the lack of reading on our culture.

The mom who wrote me apparently has a hunch it isn’t healthy either and suspects the connection with her sons’ lack of reading. What she needs is a weaning plan. The crucial consideration is that electronic involvement is a powerful compulsion. I am not convinced that a gradual withdrawal or even limiting daily playtime is ultimately successful. Clearly, most parents agree that reading is adversely affected, but most of us do not want reading to be a casualty of an all out war to wrestle devices out of our children’s grip once we have allowed the attachment. It is not easy because reading, though superior for uncountable reasons, is not an equivalent pastime or as immediately rewarding. It is that instant reward that presents the challenge. The people I have talked to who have broken the addiction have only done so by going cold turkey. Only after weeks of non-involvement, has the desire for healthier habits reignited, such as pleasure in nature, people, and—books.

Being the mother of three boys, I understand a boy’s need for action, adventure, and physically challenging activity. I recommend replacing the time spent on electronics with much real-life action, demanding work, and pursuit of intriguing and time-consuming hobbies and service. A boy who is involved in building a house for the homeless or painting the office of the local crisis pregnancy center or tutoring underprivileged children, will reconnect with his God-given desire to love his neighbor as himself. These body-fatiguing and soul-satisfying activities will fill the void his electronics have left. I know their games keep them quiet and out of trouble, but our years with them are short, so let’s spend the few we have being involved with them and, most important, training them up to lead lives not as isolated individuals, but happy and productive members of their community.

And, if reading is the goal, I recommend that when they are tired and hungry after a day of sports or ministry, that family read-aloud time becomes part of the relaxation. If your boys once loved books, they will rediscover their early attachment, and if they have never loved reading, they will learn to love it because teen boys have an insatiable need for relational activities. Reading with others, about others, and for others is all that.

For the joy of reading,


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