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Pages vs. Screens: Why Kids of All Ages Should Embrace Reading

by David Engle | Nov 03, 2020 | 7 min read

We’re into November now, which means…you’ve tossed the jack-o’-lanterns you meticulously created while sacrificing a good amount of blood in the process (or maybe that was just me…), you may have already started your holiday shopping, you’re well into planning a pandemic-friendly Thanksgiving dinner, and temperatures are about to decrease steadily in many parts of the country.

If anything positive has come from COVID-19, it’s the fact that it’s brought kids back outside to enjoy the spring, summer, and fall weather. Like most of you, I’ve been working from home for quite a while. My home office looks out onto a couple of streets in our neighborhood, and every time I’d glance away from my laptop screen, I would spot kids riding bikes, playing basketball, walking with friends, decorating the sidewalks with chalk, cruising around on skateboards and scooters, and pushing a large wheel down the road with a stick (ok, not the last one). Same thing when I’d take the dogs for a walk or take a stroll around the neighborhood with my wife–kids everywhere. It looked like a scene out of a 1950s TV show.

During COVID, kids may have simply grown tired of looking at the same walls, playing the same games on their phones, scrolling through social media, and watching TV. It really seemed to bring children outdoors en masse. So, now that the weather is about to take a turn for the cold, what will kids do? Go back to their phones and iPads? Spend entirely too much time on TikTok, Instagram, or Snapchat? Binge-watch Netflix and Hulu? Probably. And that’s ok…in moderation. But this is where you as a parent come in. Put a book in your child’s hands. It’s good for them. Literally.

These Numbers Will Blow Your Mind

I read through some of the numbers provided by the 2019 Common Sense Media Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens, a national survey of more than 1,600 kids from ages 8 to 18 on their media use behavior, and actually had to reread them two or three times to make sure my eyes were not deceiving me. Sadly, they weren’t. Brace yourselves:

  • Tweens (ages 8 to 12) spent an average of just under 5 hours (4:44) using entertainment screen media every day.
  • Teens (ages 13 to 18) spent an average of nearly 7.5 hours (7:22…!!) on the same type of screen media each day. (Keep in mind, these numbers do NOT include time spent using screen devices for homework or studying!)
  • Among teenagers, 62% spend more than four hours on screen media per day, while 29% spend more than 8 hours each day on their screens.
  • More than half of tweens (56%) watch online videos (like YouTube) every day; 69% of teens do the same.
  • Both tweens and teens spend approximately 1 hour per day watching online videos (56 minutes and 59 minutes, respectively).

As a parent of both a teen and a tween, these numbers shouldn’t really surprise me…but they did! We try to limit our kids’ screen time to a reasonable amount, which in my eyes is less than what the numbers above are telling me. The difficulty we have, however, is that our kids use their devices as a means of communicating with the outside world, which we feel is critical during these pandemic days.

My daughter uses FaceTime to chat with her friends, and my son plays PlayStation games online with his buddies. They both play the game Among Us on their phones, with each other and with all of their friends. All of these examples serve as important social time that kids truly need right now. Having said all that, there’s no way we would allow our son to spend eight hours a day on a screen or our daughter more than five hours. That’s why we build time into their day (beyond school, of course) to do other things; for us, it’s having my son spend time drawing (he’s got some artistic talent) and my daughter practicing softball (she plays on a travel team) or basketball. They both have chores to do every day. And we make sure they both read.

Why Reading (Especially Fiction) Is So Important

Aside from the well-documented reasons why too much screen time is physically and mentally detrimental to children (and adults), reading is actually quite good for you in a variety of ways. Think about every time you read a work of fiction. Don’t you paint a mental picture of what each character looks like based on the author’s descriptions? Or imagine yourself in the setting where the story occurs–the colors, the landscape, even the scents? All of this is great for the brain; these exercises stimulate the mind and challenge the brain to think in ways it doesn’t need to when everything is simply being fed to you through a screen.

There are actual scientific reasons as to why reading is beneficial for children and adults alike.

  • It’s calming. Not just for the mind, but for the body as well. Imagine if you had 30 free minutes on any given fall or winter day. You get a fire going, you make yourself a hot cup of coffee or tea, you head to your favorite couch or chair with a book, you wrap yourself in a blanket, and you just kick back and read. Does it get much more relaxing than that? Not according to a study by scientists at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, which concludes that reading a book for just six minutes can lower stress levels by nearly 70%…this is more effective than going for a walk (though it’s always a good idea to exercise), having a cup of coffee, or listening to music. The act of completely immersing yourself in the story takes your mind off the usual daily stressors–and given what 2020 has been, that’s no small feat for both kids and adults.
  • It helps people empathize. Speaking of 2020…I can’t remember a time in my life where so little empathy has been displayed across all walks of life. Reading can help that, however. A 2013 Harvard University study showed that those who read literary fiction often performed better on tasks such as predicting how characters would act and identifying the emotions of facial expressions. This ability to understand others’ mental states is called The Theory of Mind, and some scientists believe that this leads to an increased sense of empathy and the humility to deal with complex individuals. This also intertwines nicely with Social-Emotional Learning, a topic that virtually all schools are actively working into their curriculum and lessons. After all, who couldn’t use a little bit more empathy these days?
  • It just might help you live longer! Sounds a bit crazy, but it may be true! A team at Yale University followed more than 3,600 adults over the age of 50 for 12 years and concluded that those who reported reading books 30 minutes or more every day lived nearly two years longer than those who read magazines and newspapers. Part of this may be explained by the first point on our list–reading books (especially fiction) transports you away from the reality of everything you see and hear on TV and social media (much of which skews pretty negative these days) and into a new, imaginative world where you can leave behind the day-to-day stress.
  • It can help you make decisions. Dr. Maya Kjikic, a psychologist at the University of Toronto has this to say: “In our real lives, we often feel like we have to make a decision, and therefore we close our mind to information that could eventually help us. When we read fiction, we practice keeping our minds open because we can afford uncertainty.” She made this statement after conducting a study of 100 people who were assigned to read a fiction story or a nonfiction essay. Those people then completed questionnaires to assess their ability to reach a conclusion quickly and avoid indecisiveness when it came time to make a choice. From this group, the fiction readers were deemed to be more flexible and creative than the nonfiction readers, especially those who read regularly.
  • It’s good for you physically. Along with allowing you to de-stress as mentioned above, reading regularly also helps the body and mind in the following ways:
    • Improves brain connectivity
    • Increases vocabulary and comprehension
    • Helps prevent cognitive decline as you age
    • Assists in sleep readiness
    • Lowers blood pressure and heart rate
    • Aids in warding off depression symptoms

Which of those boxes wouldn’t you want to check for your children?

  • It can help change who you are–for the better. Who knew? The same research team from the University of Toronto determined that reading fiction can actually lead people to self-reflect and potentially make different choices. The study involved 166 people completing a questionnaire related to their emotions and personality traits such as extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeability, emotional stability, and openness. Half the group read an Anton Chekhov short story, “The Lady with the Dog” about a married woman having an affair; the other half read about a similar event, but in the form of a nonfiction divorce court report. After reading, all 166 people answered the same personality questionnaire as before, and several of the fiction readers’ responses were significantly different. This led to the conclusion that the fiction readers experienced a period of self-reflection and thought differently because they were able to identify with the protagonist of the story in a way that would not have been possible in the nonfiction report. Thus, imagining new and different experiences offers a space where readers can thoughtfully reflect and even change. Powerful stuff. 
  • It expands your knowledge. This one is pretty obvious and self-explanatory. And while all of the above reasons pertain more to fiction, there is absolutely nothing wrong or wasteful about reading nonfiction. Doing so may not expand your creativity or open your imagination as much as fiction, but there’s something to be said about wanting to learn more, whether it’s about history, people, or events. Personally, I am an avid nonfiction reader–I will consume a biography on just about any notable figure; I will dive right into historic occasions or monumental events. Reading nonfiction fuels my curiosity and pushes me to learn more. I thoroughly enjoy these topics, and once I close the book after reading the final words, I consider myself a more well-rounded, educated, and knowledgeable person than before I picked up the book. And I think everyone–children and adults alike–should experience that sense of accomplishment on a regular basis.

As you can see, there are plenty of great reasons to get kids away from the screen and into the pages of a good book. Sure, you’ll probably run into some resistance, but explain all of the reasons above as to why it’s healthy for them to step away and pick up a book. It’s not punishment, and you’re not eliminating their screen time–you’re merely balancing it.

Encourage them to read what they want. It doesn’t have to be Charles Dickens or George Orwell…it can be Jeff Kinney (Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, which my kids loved–I won’t lie, I did also) or R.L. Stine and his hundreds of Goosebumps novels. Or Judy Blume or Beverly Cleary. Or Maurice Sendak. If your child finds a favorite author, great! Encourage him or her to keep reading more and more of their work. Before you know it, they’ll be hooked.

Fact books, encyclopedias, graphic novels, movie adaptations–any topic, any genre. As long as your kids are relaxing with a book in their hands, they’re going to learn something and use their brains, and that’s what it’s all about. There are also tons of tween and teen online book clubs, where kids gather to read and discuss novels; this is a great way to work in reading AND socialization during the winter months.

It’s hard to deny the benefits of reading, even for screen-addicted kids. That’s why it’s our job as parents to steer them toward the bookshelf and away from the devices. Some screen time is ok, but we should also try to balance it as best we can with the entertaining comfort of a good book.


David Engle
Hello, and thanks for reading! I’m David Engle--dad, husband, sports fan, and writer/editor. As a father for the last 18 years (father of two for the last 14), I consider myself to be pretty well-versed in all things related to education, childhood, and parenting, and I'm thankful for the opportunity to share some insights and knowledge with fellow parents. I have been a professional writer and editor for a quarter of a century (it pains me to admit that) and have been writing in the educational space for a number of those years. I reside in southern New Jersey with my wife, two kids, two dogs, and three cats. Never a dull moment.
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