Teenagers and Reading
This is a post I never thought I would write, but here I am. This all started because I left a comment on a Jack Edwards video on YouTube. For those that don’t know, Edwards is a 20-something British dude with a degree in English. His YouTube channels are dedicated to all things books. An unrelated discussion started taking place in the comments where some young people decided that his channel was intentionally directed toward teenagers. While he has read YA books such as The Heartbreaker series, his channel is not directed toward teenagers, it is directed to the book community as a whole. He more often than not reports on books from the perspective of an English major. We really do approach books differently and through a critical lens.
Every English major is required to take at least one class on literary theory. I’ve taken one and I will have to take a second this fall when I start grad school. I have also taken a class specifically on post-colonial theory. We are taught about feminist theory, queer theory, Marxist criticism, psychological criticism, what is called “new criticism” but is really all about close reading and a thing called “the death of the author“, and more. All of this is about looking at books from different view points.
Example. There are a lot of reviews floating around on Penelope Douglas’ book Punk 57. People either love it or hate it. Some people are quick to point out that the relationship in the book is very problematic. Others are in it just for the sex. I expected to go into this book and rip it apart. Afterall, I took women and gender studies where the book Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men was required reading. It is about the “culture of guys, aged 16 to 26: their attitudes, their relationships, their rules, and their rituals.” In short, what is and is not considered masculine and how boys and young men enforce manliness on each other. From a critical approach there is nothing wrong with this book. It is considered a dark romance, meaning it has darker content and adult themes. Punk 57 is about two flawed people being flawed. Neither character is who they say they are and they both have issues to work out. It is very much how real life and real relationships sometimes work. It is also about learning who you are and finding your place in the world.
I have a hard time believing, even for a brief second, that a 20-something guy with an English degree is intentionally making content for teenagers because 1.) teenagers have not been taught to read critically. It’s not something that public education (especially here in the United States) is worried about. It is more worried about creating drones for the workforce, teaching conformity and compliance. It is the lucky student that gets a teacher that actually teaches them to think for themselves. And 2.) the books chosen for the channel are not the typical fair that teenagers would read such as The People we Meet on Vacation, The Maidens, and Before the Coffee Gets Cold. Granted, some teenagers may read these books, but it’s not the norm. I am also sure that some of these teenage subscribers are there because Edwards is a good looking and funny guy and, while they may be readers, they have little interest in what he is reading.
Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s there wasn’t a large YA market like there is today. The YA book market is something relatively new. During my childhood there was very little age appropriate at my reading level. This meant I was reading books meant for adults where I had challenging books to read and wasn’t bored. Kids and teenagers don’t have this problem today. There are great YA books out there and a lot of adults read them. The biggest problem with reading things above your age group is you lack the life experience to fully understand and appreciate the books. The Left Hand of Darkness is a much different book as an adult than it was when I was 9. The same with Dune.
In response to the comment that I made stating that I didn’t think that Edward’s channel was directed toward teenagers and what he is reading and talking about are not typically books teenagers read, I had a teenager respond to me and tell me that I was wrong. In this person’s eyes, all teenagers were like them (because their friends were) and read these kinds of books and watched Jack Edwards, therefore his was, indeed, a channel directed specifically toward teenagers. I miss the teenage privilege of thinking the world revolves around me and never being wrong and getting away with it because of my age. If I did that today at my age I would have all manner of people tell me I was being an asshole, starting with my best friend.
I quoted the first study that I came across, even though it was 4 years old, to point out the reading habits of teenagers. Again, I was told that I was wrong, that the study was 4 years old, out of date, and not reflective of now, and that I had no idea what teenagers were doing. I think i have pretty good idea of what 17 to 19 year-olds are doing as they were my undergrad university peers. Many of them I befriended. But, whatever. I’m not explaining my life to someone that is looking for a fight on YouTube because they took a general statement personally. However, what I did do was look for more current studies on teenager reading habits. Newsflash: those 4 year-old statistics are still pretty accurate.
- The average person between 14 and 44 reads 10 minutes or less per day (source) while teenagers specifically read for just over 8 minutes a day (source). This is average person. There are people who make it part of their routine to read 20 to 30 minutes a day. There are people like me who read a book in one sitting. But typically, across the board, people read 10 minutes or less a day.
- 1 in 3 teenagers have not read a book for pleasure in a year (source). That means at least 33% of teenagers don’t read anything outside their classwork.
- Only 30% of teenagers consider themselves readers and that number matched up with the teenagers reading during the pandemic lockdown (source). That number is only slightly higher from the statistics I found from 4 years ago. However, having read other articles about how during lockdown reading in general increased, I would say that small change would make sense across the board. Another study concluded that the older a child gets, the more likely they are to stop reading for pleasure (source).
- Not surprisingly, teenagers are more likely to spend time on social media than read (source).
- The Pew Research Center is reporting a drop in reading among pre-teens and that it is at it’s lowest level since the 80’s.
Statistically, kids and teenagers aren’t reading. In 2018 the Department of Education declared an adolescent literacy crisis stating “the literacy skills of many students in grades 4–12 are so alarmingly low that the students have difficulty meeting the academic challenges of high school and are ill prepared for postsecondary education and the workforce.” 25% of children in the United States grow up not learning how to read (source) and just under 20% of students graduate high school without basic reading proficiency (source). This means that if a child learns how to read, they aren’t gaining the other skills that are part of literacy such as reading comprehension and critical thinking skills to make sense of what they are reading.
This is a serious social problem. Literacy in kids and teenagers, or rather lack of it, leads to a higher risk of committing crime, a higher risk of teen pregnancy, and a high risk of being on welfare. These statistics are more concerning to me than some butthurt teenager on the internet telling me I am clueless just because they are an exception to the rule and can’t see beyond their own bubble. I don’t expect everyone to consume books like candy. Everyone has different likes and dislikes and not everyone is going to enjoy reading, but these low numbers represent a bigger problem. I am not going to pretend I have an answer because I don’t. I don’t even know where to start.