What Happened to Reading for Fun? And What Can We Do About It?

You know you’ve got a problem when you’re afraid to check your screen time. Over the past year and a half, I’ve started dreading my weekly average report every Sunday, as the hours I spent on my phone each day steadily climbed with every month in lockdown. 

By Kristiana Filipov

You know you’ve got a problem when you’re afraid to check your screen time. Over the past year and a half, I’ve started dreading my weekly average report every Sunday, as the hours I spent on my phone each day steadily climbed with every month in lockdown. 

According to Twitter, I’m not alone. During the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve all spent more time on our phones. This is partially because our normal social connections moved online too. In the age of lockdown, instead of going to friends’ houses or hanging out during after school extracurriculars, social media became the basis for almost all of our social interaction. Physical distancing simultaneously expanded our free time and strangled our social lives, so naturally, many students turned to their phones. 

When we couple the time spent socializing digitally with the time spent on computers in remote education, we see a real problem: teenagers spend most of their day looking at a screen, connected to the internet, and lost in a digital world. Now, the ubiquity of screens in our life is bound to impact how students engage in the world, how they process information, and how they succeed academically. Phone use decreases our ability to focus on one thing and our education system requires that students sit and attend class with uninterrupted focus. We’ve learned that heavy screen time can actually hurt academic performance. As we return to in-person education, students may not know how technology and increased screen time has changed their self-perception, their ability to focus, or their ability to create an academic environment that understands how their brains have changed while learning virtually.

An ability to focus for long-periods of time is also core to XQ’s Learner Goals. To succeed in the career and college, students need to hold foundational knowledge and fundamental literacies—that means understanding not only academic material, but knowing how to tap into and utilize different modes of thinking as well. However, creating experiences where students will want to focus deeply and for extended periods of time, these learning environments must be built with meaningful and engaged learning and student voice at the center—core tenants of XQ’s Design Principles.

A Generation on Screens

Of course, increasing screen time was a problem even before the pandemic. I’ve kept novels by my bed for almost my whole life, but once I entered middle school and got my own phone, my reading progress slowed until the books I used to tear through began gathering dust. In 2019, Common Sense Media found that teenagers used screens for an average of 9 hours and 49 minutes a day. While the problem of increased screen usage has existed long before COVID-19, it’s clear that the pandemic has done a lot to exacerbate it. Over the past year and half alone, the amount of students using screens for more than four hours a day doubled, from 22 percent before shelter in place to 44 percent in June 2020. 

This is Your Brain on the Internet

You might not think that this change in screen time will really affect how we think and how our brains learn to process information. However, that is not the case. In his 2010 book “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,” Nicholas Carr argues that the internet severely limits our ability to concentrate on one thing for a long period of time. Carr helped me understand why I have had such a hard time reading books since I started using the internet consistently. He introduced me to the idea of neuroplasticity, which is the capacity for the human brain to adapt and change to new stimuli. As I spend more time scrolling through compact packages of information like TikToks, Tweets, and Instagram posts, it’s harder for me to concentrate on longform journalism or full-length novels (Carr’s book took me a long time to read). We could (and may eventually) produce all content and information in the form of sound bytes and infographics, but in our current school systems and workplaces, serious academic and intellectual work requires sustained concentration. So what should we do? Change the world, or change our schools?

Turning a New Page

That’s not to say that there is nothing educators can do to mitigate the changes in their students’ neuroscience. According to Carr, the ability to focus on one thing for a long time isn’t natural, and requires practice and reinforcement of those neural pathways. When I used to read for fun, the ability to concentrate constantly got easier and easier, and I was a very fast reader. I could do homework faster, study for tests more easily, and retain more information that I had learned. But these skills depended on my ability to focus free from the distractions of the internet. When my peers say that “reading is hard,” I hear a generation of students who have never been taught how to focus. Long term focus is a skill just as much as addition, subtraction, and all other building blocks of education. The problem is, the already-busy school day doesn’t typically make time for long periods of sustained focus. 

As we begin to return to in-person education, educators have a unique opportunity to redesign high school to provide students with the opportunity to develop the capability to focus. If high schools dedicated a certain amount of class time (perhaps in English classes) to silent reading without electronics available, students would have the opportunity to engage in sustained concentration without all the usual distractions. Schools have long implemented summer reading challenges and encouraged book clubs and other programs, but they are typically optional and independently driven, which means that most students don’t do them. If we created fun, quiet, and comfortable spaces for students to read books of their choosing for discrete amounts of time, those who have never enjoyed reading might come to appreciate the fun of it. As a consequence, they could rewire their neural pathways and eventually gain a robust ability to concentrate, a skill that is broadly useful and essential for building 21st century learners. 

Sustained contemplative thought—a skill which can be learned and practiced—is necessary in order to become a deeply engaged, fully prepared learner. Any level of mathematical, scientific, or humanities-based learning relies on the ability to focus on the problems being presented and to work through the solutions or implications of those problems. In the age of the internet, the capability for sustained contemplative thought does not come naturally to most children. If schools can help students start taking pleasure in reading novels without getting bored or distracted, we might finally be able to start checking our weekly screen time reports without shame. 

Building Education for Tomorrow’s Learners

Building an education system that responds to the needs of students today and anticipates the needs of students tomorrow means evolving classrooms so they align with the latest research in neuroscience, brain development, and learning methods. If we’ve learned anything throughout the pandemic, it’s that the world changes every day. The way we educated students in the past, may not work in today’s context, and surely won’t work for students in the future. If we want to build XQ learners—if we want to nurture 21st century learners—then we have to update our classrooms to meet the needs of 21st century students. Schools are places that should be constantly re-thought, re-designed, and re-imagined. They aren’t static institutions. They are places to help everchanging adolescents transform into actualized adults and should be flexible and dynamic to do just that.

Author: Kristiana Filipov

Author Bio:  Kristiana Filipov is a sophomore at Princeton University studying the humanities and a staff writer for The Daily Princetonian and The Nassau Weekly. She has loved reading her whole life.