There's a Crisis of Reading Among Generation Z

As young people read less and less, they may be short-circuiting their reading brains.
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Gen Z Development CASBS

They are bright, innovative, confident in their skills on all manner of digital screens and devices: This is Generation Z, many of whom have little notion that they have begun to short-circuit some of the essential cognitive and affective processes that produced the digital world they inhabit. Furthermore, no small number of these young humans would grimace if asked to read this last sentence with its multiple clauses and syntactical demands. Reports from university and high school instructors like Mark Edmundson describe how many students no longer have the patience to read denser, more difficult texts like classic literature from the 19th and 20th centuries.

I am less concerned with students' cognitive impatience than with their potential inability to read with the sophistication necessary to grasp the complexity of thought and argument found in denser, longer, more demanding texts, whether in literature and science classes or, later, in wills, contracts, and public referenda.

The reality is that our young people are changing in ways that are as imperceptible to them as to most adults, particularly in how, what, and why they read—the cornerstone of how most humans think for the last few centuries with the spread of literacy, as I discuss in my book Tales of Literacy for the 21st Century.

Changes in the reading performance and reading habits of our young are chronicled in the surprising, just-released results of a series of studies by scholars in Europe, Israel, and the United States. The results of research by Jean Twenge and her colleagues on young people's reading habits over the last 50 years is summarized in their subtitle: "The Rise of Digital Media, the Decline of TV, and the (Near) Demise of Print."

Perhaps the most depressing statistic that the researchers cite is the decline of daily reading of some form of print—whether magazine, book, etc.—from 60 percent in the late 1970s to 12 percent today. The authors use the notion of "displacement theory" to contextualize their results; 82 percent of young people use social media today, which more than likely displaces time they might formerly have given to reading. Although such changes may make some of us wince, they are unsurprising.

The more unexpected and worrisome changes appear in the comprehension capacities of college-aged students when they're reading on print or digital-based mediums. In a huge meta-analysis by European researchers in the E-READ Consortium of over 170,000 subjects in 58 studies conducted between 2000 and 2017, young people were significantly better in comprehension skills when reading the same text on print, rather than on digital screens. The researchers found that print enabled higher comprehension across genres, and that this heightened comprehension became more marked when a student was being timed. Perhaps most surprisingly, the superior comprehensibility of print increased over the years: Thus, the readers most likely to be digital natives were actually comprehending text better when reading it in print, rather than on screens.

This research by scholars in the E-READ consortium portrays a generation that grew up with digital reading and appears to be less likely or potentially less able to use more sophisticated cognitive processes to the fullest when reading on screens.

A related body of research in Israel, led by Rakefet Ackerman and her colleagues, compared the reading skills among Gen Z on print and digital mediums and demonstrated these same trends, with an important caveat: When asked which medium produced their best performance, Israeli students "perceived" that they were better on digital. They had no knowledge that they read with less understanding and detail when reading on screens. They falsely associated faster speed with understanding. A similar study in the same country by Tami Katzir with much younger readers again showed the same effects on comprehension.

The questions raised by these studies have profound implications for Generation Z. Research in the neurosciences, I believe, has a special contribution to make. In my own work on how the human brain learns to read, I have emphasized the role of neuroplasticity in understanding the changes to reading in a digital world. More specifically, learning to read requires the brain to form a new, highly malleable circuit that develops from a basic circuit for simple decoding to an expert reading brain that connects our most sophisticated cognitive and affective tools—what we call "deep reading” processes—to whatever we read. Crucially, the particular processes in the circuit reflect the environment that forms it—e.g., the writing system, the type of education, the characteristics or affordances of the medium.

Therein lies the cerebral catch that helps explain what is happening to our young. As our youth read ever more on digital devices—which privilege fast processing, skimming and word-spotting, filtering voluminous information, and multi-tasking—their circuits adapt accordingly, often acquiring new, cognitively innovative and visually sophisticated processes.

As Sherry Turkle of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology asserts, however, it is as important to recognize which capacities such innovations disrupt or diminish as which ones they expand. We must understand whether our youths' adaptation to digital affordances is diminishing their use of time-demanding deep reading processes: from background knowledge, inference, and critical analysis to empathy and insight.

Indeed, we must all ask whether we have begun the insidious skipping of the focused attention and time needed to analyze the truth and implications of what we read on whatever medium. After spending hours every day on screens, more and more adults are concerned that they no longer experience the same levels of immersion in their reading. Critical analysis and empathy could become the unforeseen collateral damage of a Faustian bargain most are largely unaware of ever having made.

There are old rules in the brain's design that do not change: Use it or lose it. I would add, Choose it. A great deal hangs on how we work as a society to choose who we want to be—whether we choose to preserve the use of deep reading processes across every medium in our young and in ourselves as we expand our technologies. The stakes are multiple for our next generation: the capacity to discern truth; to appreciate and create beauty; and to be transported outside themselves—to encounter the thoughts and feelings of others so as to contemplate their own novel thoughts, the basis of our shared future.

Gen Z footer image Generation Z

Understanding Gen Z, a collaboration between Pacific Standard and Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, investigates the historical context and social science research that helps explain the next generation. Join our newsletter to see new stories, and let us know your thoughts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Understanding Gen Z was made possible by Stanford University's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) and its director, Margaret Levi, who hosted the iGen Project. Further support came from the Knight Foundation.

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