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If Video Killed the Radio Star, then what has Social Media done to the humble novel?

Having taught English for quite some time, I can tell you this…if I had a dollar for every concerned parent who told me that, “Little Johnny used to read all the time but now he just isn’t interested,” I would be a rich woman.
The fact is, this is a well-documented phenomenon. Studies have shown time and again, that even the most avid pre-teen reader loses interest as they cross the threshold into adolescence – a time when life gets so much more exciting. For adolescents, the world seems to suddenly explode with possibilities and for many, life is a flurry of school, socialising, sport, homework, paid work…

So is it fair to blame social media for this reading slump? Surely, with the introduction of television in the 1950s worried parents were questioning the “kids these days” as we do today.
The irony is that teens today are probably engaging with texts more than they ever have before. With Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, etc. flooding their consciousness all hours of the day and night, “multi-channel” teens (Lenhardt et al, 2007) are constantly “reading”. What they are reading though, is mostly visual, generally multi-modal (music/images/spoken and written words combined for effect), always short and unfortunately, very poorly written. In this environment of hyper stimulation and instant gratification, is it any wonder that young people lack the focus necessary to invest hours into reading a novel, however engaging it may be, when a movie, TV show or 3 min YouTube clip is so much simpler to digest?

Within this context, the notion of sitting down for several hours to read a novel just doesn’t seem all that attractive. David Denby, in his article published in The New Yorker in 2016, observed that, ‘…[for teens] reading anything serious has become a chore, like doing the laundry or prepping a meal for a kid brother. Or, if it’s not a chore, it’s just an activity, like swimming or shopping, an activity like any other. It’s not something that runs through the rest of their lives.’

There is no denying the benefits of cultivating a love of reading to challenge this view of reading as a chore. For fear of preaching to the converted, we know that regular readers generally enjoy better academic performance resulting from exposure to a diversity of language. Reading fosters an understanding of the way clauses and sentences work to generate meaning, helps students build vocabulary and broadens their imaginations. The practice of reading also helps to prolong attention span and is one of the skills they learn in classical education that will take them through their whole lives, keeping them in touch with their world.

So what do we do to nurture this love of literature? While I can’t promise success for all, research and experience tells me that these are the small actions can help:
1. Make it social. I’m not suggesting that you hold a monthly book club with your son, but the social nature of reading is often one that is overlooked. By sharing books with young people, we give them an avenue to discuss their reactions to stories, their thoughts, concerns, feelings. It gives them a reason to read.
2. Model and Market reading as pleasurable. Young people need to see us enjoying reading – not as a chore but as relaxation and recreation. Share some of the novels that you remember reading and loving in your youth. Talk openly about why you read and let them see you enjoying it. And dads, this is particularly important for you. Young men must see reading as a masculine pursuit – so show them how it’s done.
3. Embrace technology. While it seems counter intuitive, online and eBooks are fantastic ways to blend an adolescent’s love of technology with reading.
4. Listen in. If reading is challenging for your son, audiobooks and podcasts provide a gateway to texts that would often be out of their reach. Listening to amazing stories still exposes teens to different language and narrative structures and helps them to hear what fluent reading sounds like.

As schools across the country are celebrating Book Week, what better time than now to start celebrating and encouraging reading. We need to remind ourselves that they won’t be moody adolescents forever. They will grow out of it. Our sincere hope is that, when they do, we will have started for them a love affair with literature they will enjoy for the rest of their lives.
Happy reading.
Christina Chapman
chapmanc@atc.qld.edu.au