What is the quality of your thinking? Do you think in text talk? Do you find it difficult to focus on a complex article more than five paragraphs long? When was the last time you picked up a real book and read it cover to cover? What about a challenging book you have to think deeply about? Do you feel the world is passing you by if you’re not on your smartphone?
If any of these questions give you a ping of concern, you are likely suffering from jelly brain caused by too much screen time. You need to implement an emergency reclamation project on your cerebral life—right now!
Some very smart people are beginning to recognize that all of our digitized gadgets—though marvels of modern technology—are actually a threat to living a quality life and are harming us physically.
“In 2012, Paul Miller, a 26-year-old journalist and former writer for The Verge [an American technology news and media network operated by Vox Media], began to worry about the quality of his thinking,” wrote James McWilliams for The American Scholar, Spring 2016.
“His ability to read difficult studies or to follow intricate arguments demanding sustained attention was lagging,” continued McWilliams. “He found himself easily distracted and, worse, irritable about it. His long-time touchstone—his smartphone—was starting to annoy him, making him feel insecure and anxious rather than grounded in the ideas that formerly had nourished him. ‘If I lost my phone,’ he said, he’d feel ‘like I could never catch up.’ He realized that his online habits weren’t helping him to work, much less to multitask. He was just switching his attention all over the place and, in the process, becoming a bit unhinged.” Similar stories are popping up in newspapers, medical journals and books.
Screen Timers Dilemma
David Denby, staff writer and former film critic for the New Yorker, laments a similar experience. “Lucky and generally content as a movie critic, I was nevertheless jangled by too many media images rattling around in my brain. I wanted my head to rattle with other things as well. I needed to go back to school. … [The writing of Great Books], in part, became a search for myself, a movie critic who was feeling lost in a welter of media images and needed to read and think seriously again. It was something of a reclamation job,” writes Denby in his recently published book, Lit Up.
Denby’s book (whose subtitle is, “One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-Four Books That Can Change Lives”) expresses his concern about the impact screen addiction is having on teens, especially older teens, and their ability to think, reason and carry on conversations. He feels the greatest damage that society’s current rage with screen time has done is deemphasize the importance of reading in high schools, colleges and universities. Denby is quite honest. He saw a “reading crisis” in his own life—as an adult. He sees reading as the remedy to save our brains.
He is not alone. Miller’s story is very enlightening and confirms Denby’s concern. “More troubling was how his observations were materializing not as full thoughts but as brief tweets—he was thinking in word counts,” stated McWilliams. “When he realized he was spending 95 percent of his waking hours connected to digital media in a world where he ‘had never known anything different,’ he proposed to his editor a series of articles that turned out to be intriguing and prescriptive. What would it be like to disconnect for a year?” Miller’s boss accepted his challenge, and the young writer pulled the plug on his digitized world. We’ll tell you some of his experiences later in this article.
Books Are Passé
Let me say from the outset, I am not against digitized screen devices. I own an iPad, a laptop and a smartphone. I do my day’s work on an iMac. However, when I am not traveling on an airplane, or when I do lengthy and detailed research, I rely on printed materials—books and magazines—and not on my iPad or searching the Internet. In fact, when I search the Internet, I download and print what I find helpful. Why? I know I retain more from what I read in print than just on a screen. My digital devices have their place in my work, but they are not my sole work tools.
I did not grow up in the digital age. I truly believe this gives me an advantage. I spent my school years from 1957 through 1975. To gain my education during those years, I relied on teachers and books. To research for homework assignments, I went to the school or public library and read magazines and books. So did everyone else. My schoolmates and I valued books and the reading habit. Laptops, tablets and smartphones (which are minicomputers) were dreams of science fiction.
Compare my experience with today’s young people. A 2014 Pew survey found that 46 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds said they read a book—including books for school—every day or almost every day. Most of these young people are students. This raises the question, what are the other 54 percent doing?
Here’s the point: For half the teenagers in school today, books are passé. Denby relates how one student told his teacher, “Books smell like old people.”
Digital Devices Dominate Education
The digitized world is dominating our modern school system. There has been a major drive by school administrators to put computers and other screen devices into the classrooms. In some school districts, blackboards have been replaced by touch-screen computer boards, a marvelous tool at first observation. However, these devices promote even more screen time for children. Are educators unconsciously reinforcing a prejudice against books?
“A more recent Pew survey, issued on April 9, 2015, reported that ‘aided by the convenience and constant access provided by mobile devices, especially smartphones, 92 percent of teens report going online daily—including 24 percent who say they go online ‘almost constantly,’” writes Denby. “In general American teenagers may be reading more sheer words than ever, but they are reading mostly on screens; they certainly aren’t reading many serious books,” states Denby with regret.
Denby suggests that students should take ample time off screens and read real books—with two covers and a dust jacket. Why? Books give teens a tactile experience that helps them focus their thinking, develop their powers of reasoning, and improve their ability to make judgments. Combined with classroom discussion, it teaches them how to engage in a well-thought-out conversation—person to person, face to face.
Help Your Teen
Educators and parents are getting too far away from encouraging a good liberal arts education, thinking it is a waste of time. Many educators and parents want students to go after high-paying jobs in business, science and technology. Now there is a glut of business, science and technology graduates in the market for jobs. “[E]mployers have repeatedly said that they want to hire people with a good liberal arts education,” states Denby—“people who can think, judge and express themselves; they want people who can follow complicated instructions, talk in a meeting, understand fellow workers. They can buy robots.”
Parents, one of the best things you can do for your teenagers is to encourage them to develop a love for, and the habit of, reading print materials. “[R]eading strengthens perception, judgment and character; it creates understanding of other people and oneself, maybe kindliness and wit, and certainly the ability to endure solitude, both in the common sense of empty-room loneliness and the cosmic sense of empty-universe loneliness,” writes Denby with conviction. His book Lit Up is a very interesting study of three top schools that have adopted the same thinking about reading books.
Evidence is growing that no human being can derive the same benefits from digital reading.
Paul Miller’s experiment with disconnecting from the world yielded interesting results. “For the first several months, the world unfolded as if in slow motion,” wrote McWilliams about Miller. “He experienced ‘a tangible change in my ability to be more in the moment,’ recalling how ‘fewer distractions now flowed through my brain.’ The Internet, he said, ‘teaches you to expect instant gratification, which makes it hard to be a good human being.’ Disconnected, he found a more patient and reflective self, one more willing to linger over complexities that he once clicked away from. ‘I had a longer attention span, I was better able to handle complex reading, I did not need instant gratification, and,’ he added somewhat incongruously, ‘I noticed more smells.’”
Start Very Young
It is not easy to develop the love and habit of reading in older teens (and in ourselves). Denby believes it is a monumental task. Yet it can be done. In reality, the love and habit of reading is more easily begun in infants and young children.
When should you begin? Literally it can begin as soon as your infant can sit in your lap. This is a perfect time to pull out picture books, activity board books (which are practically indestructible), little animal books, even colorful abc books. Your infant will associate reading with fond memories of you. Holding him and engaging him in activity gives him a positive experience that he will associate with reading for the rest of his life. Remember, it is the emotional attachment to you that is most important during your child’s infancy. There is no need to try to teach a six-month-old the letters of the alphabet.
As your children grow, change the books you read with them to be appropriate for their age. Dr. Seuss books were a favorite of our four daughters when they were toddlers. Particularly if you are expressive while reading, your children will associate “fun” with reading. If you do this consistently, even every day (we did it just before bedtime), your children will have the love and habit of reading books by the time they are ready for school.
Yet you cannot surrender your responsibility to your child’s teacher at that point. Continue reading at home. Make it a family affair. Spend time reading books with your children as they progress through school. My wife read books such as Little House on the Prairie along with our daughters. All of our daughters are still book readers today. Even though they no longer live at home, we often discuss what books we are currently reading.
As a word of caution, most pediatricians do not recommend screen devices for young and middle-school-age children as a reading tool. In a 2015 article titled “5 Reasons Physical Books Might Be Better Than E-Books,” reported mentalfloss.com, “In a study of middle schoolers, West Chester University researchers found that students who read on iPads had lower reading comprehension than when they read traditional printed books. They discovered that the kids sometimes skipped text in favor of interactive features in the e-books, suggesting that certain multimedia in children’s e-books can be detrimental to the practice of reading itself.”
It Begins With You
“A recent summary of studies cited by Common Sense Media indicates that American teenagers are less likely to read ‘for fun’ at 17 than at 13,” writes Denby. This is important information. Younger children have a natural desire to read interesting and fun books. If you observe that your younger teenager still loves to read, be sure to encourage that habit. Get involved with him and make that interest a passion. Why? It is inevitable that your teen will associate with other teens who think reading is not cool. Unless your teen has a strong desire to read, his “cool” peers could steer him away from the reading habit.
The way you influence your older teen to acquire the reading habit is to make sure you have one. If you are spending your off-work hours gaming, surfing the Internet, watching dvds and television, you can hardly expect your older teen to become an avid reader. Your teen will follow your example, good or bad!
Denby’s admission that his job as a movie critic jangled his brain with a sea of media images is quite telling. For adults to preserve good mental health, we need to rest our brains from excessive screen time. Reading a book is one of the best activities to do this. Now by saying this, if you’re not a regular reader I don’t suggest you pick up and start reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Be smart: Start small and light with a subject of interest to you.
Books: Good for Your Mental Health
In my off-work time, I only read from books. Since reading is a large part of my job, on weekends, I go after tougher classics and nonfiction I am interested in personally. For mental relaxation, I like reading a selection from the Hardy Boys’ Mysteries series. After I am done with one, I pass it on to my grandson.
On Oct. 2, 2015, the Huff Post Books blog featured a worthwhile article titled “Drop That Kindle! Ten Reasons Print Books Are Better Than E-books.” Point number nine reads, “Print books are better for your health. A Harvard Medical School study last year found that reading a light-emitting e-book before bed interferes with your ability to sleep, with your alertness the following morning, and with your overall health.” There are numerous studies in print today about the dangers of sleep deprivation on adult health. Reading from an e-book right before bed tells your brain it’s time to wake up. Reading a paper book can calm your mind and make you relaxed and drowsy.
“Reading in and of itself has plenty of benefits for our minds,” wrote Lecia Bushak for Medical Daily. “Studies have shown that reading over the course of a lifetime (or even starting to read consistently when you’re well into your 60s and 70s) can prevent mental decline. Along with keeping your mind sharp and enlarging your knowledge base, reading can expand your sense of empathy, too. A 2013 study found that when people were transported into the emotional travails of books’ characters, they grew to become more empathetic in real life” (Jan. 11, 2015). Here Ms. Bushak is referring to the importance of reading nonfiction, not just fiction.
The Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation reports: “Reading books and magazines, writing and participating in other mentally stimulating activities, no matter your age, can help to keep memory and thinking skills intact, a new study suggests. The findings add to growing evidence that mental challenges like reading and doing crossword puzzles may help to preserve brain health and stave off symptoms of Alzheimer’s in old age.”
Much more can be said about the importance of reading throughout life. One way you can stay informed about reading and books worth reading is to tune in to one of Trumpet Radio’s newest programs: Just the Best Literature. The program’s goal is to not only have you read printed materials, it is designed to encourage you to read only the best literature. It is broadcast on kpcg.fm Monday mornings at 8 a.m. cdt. Stream it at any time by visiting theTrumpet.com/go/jbl.