When Bill Gates was asked what advice he would give to young people who want to make a positive impact on the world, his answer was simple: “Read a lot and discover a skill you enjoy.” Bill Gates reportedly reads about 50 books a year. But his advice is probably easier said than done.
Global reading time: A diminishing trend
Global reading time is going down. In the United States, the average American spent just 16 minutes per day reading in 2019, the latest year on record. In 2004, they were reading 23 minutes per day.
To put it into perspective, the average podcast episode is more than twice that at 38 minutes. But this isn’t just a growing American phenomenon.
In Europe, a 2016 study of 15 EU countries shared that Europeans spend between just 2 and 13 minutes per day reading books. The French read the least at 2 minutes per day, and Estonians read an average of 13 minutes a day.
In another report, they discovered that more than half of adults in the US (51.57%) haven’t read a book in over a year. If you take a look at the last three years, only a fourth (22.01%) of adults haven’t read a book.
In the United States, in fact, even as people found themselves stuck at home for the most part of the pandemic, book sales increased. However, as the study admits, “there is no current data to see if this increase [in books] translated into time spent reading.”
This decreasing reading time trend is a cause for concern, as it has far-reaching consequences for personal and professional development. It negatively impacts literacy and language development. Additionally, it decreases critical thinking skills and hinders the ability to engage with complex ideas and arguments. In fact, 54% of Americans aged 16 to 74 read below the equivalent of a sixth-grade level, said a 2020 study.
Digital media’s role in the global reading time crisis
Digital media has shifted the way people consume information, with people preferring to consume content in bite-sized thumb-stopping pieces instead of through long-form content. And when we’re limited by character counts on Twitter, or threated by the thought of losing followers for content that’s just too long, we perpetuate a culture in which users are rewarded for short, witty posts rather than for lengthy, thought-provoking essays. As a result, people have become increasingly less likely to engage in extended reading activities.
According to Jean M. Twenge, PhD, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, “Compared with previous generations, teens in the 2010s spent more time online and less time with traditional media, such as books, magazines and television.”
In 2018, she published a study in the Psychology of Popular Media Culture looking at the trend of US adolescents’ media use, while also analyzing the rise of digital media and the decline of TV and print. She came to the conclusion that “time on digital media has displaced time once spent enjoying a book or watching TV.”
According to Twenge, in the mid-2010s, the average American 12th-grader spent approximately two hours a day texting, just over two hours a day on the internet and under two hours a day on social media. “That’s a total of about six hours per day on just three digital media activities during their leisure time.” And we can safely assume that since the pandemic forced millions of students around the world into a remote learning setup, spending even more time online, those numbers are now probably higher.
Meanwhile, in a 2018 article in the New Yorker, they said that “television, rather than the internet, likely remains the primary force distracting Americans from books.” To some extent, that may also be true, especially with the growth of video streaming platforms in the last few years. YouTube, for example, now has over two billion active users. Netflix, the largest paid-for video streaming service in the world, has, as of January 2023, 195 million subscribers. And the global streaming market is still expected to grow in the next few years.
Then again maybe the way we’re looking at the problem can also be improved. For Elena Forzani, assistant professor of education at Boston University, she raises the question that perhaps survey questions aren’t really taking into consideration the different types of reading one can do online.
How technology is impacting global reading time
Of course, it’s very easy to put the blame on emerging media platforms — mostly because we’ve seen similar trends before. As technology advances and more and more people are turn to digital media, technology continues to have an impact on global reading time:
Taking it way back, the invention of the printing press ushered in an era of mass production and the democratization of knowledge. But it also replaced traditional scriptoria — the place where books were once hand-copied and hand-illuminated (painted). It also steered the gradual shift from oral traditions.
In the last few months, much has already been said about the rise of artificial intelligence, specifically ChatGPT, which has made content production — among other things — easier and faster. However, this has come at the cost of sacrificing nuanced analysis, deeper research and, in some cases, accuracy. This means that readers are not getting the full, detailed information they need to truly comprehend a topic or idea.
For Professor of Psychology Jean M. Twenge, PhD., the young aren’t actually less intelligent or have less comprehension skills, “but they do have less experience focusing for longer periods of time and reading long-form text.”
She adds, “Being able to read long-form text is crucial for understanding complex issues and developing critical thinking skills. Democracies need informed voters and involved citizens who can think through issues, and that might be more difficult for people of all ages now that online information is the norm.”
A series of tests conducted by Ziming Liu from San Jose State University shared their classification of a “new norm” in reading which is skimming. When skimming, readers sample the first line and then word-spot through the remaining of whatever it is they’re reading.
And when this happens, it reduces time to grasp complexity, sympathize, perceive, and create thoughts of their own.
Understanding the benefits of deep reading
When talking about the importance of deep reading, Maryanne Wolf and Mirit Barzillai said that digital media consumers with digital-focused habits of multitasking and consuming endless amount of information at the same time aren’t really suited for slower cognitive processes that are “vital of contemplative life and that are at the heart of what we call deep reading.”
These are “the array of sophisticated processes that propel comprehension and that include inferential and deductive reasoning, analogical skills, critical analysis, reflection, and insight.” They go on to say that with such readily available content at our fingertips, there is the potential to become a more passive and easily “deluded” learner whose attention can be easily diverted.
In the age where we have mistakenly praised the capacity of people to multi-task, who knew that the act of focusing on one thing — in this case, reading — can be perceived as out-of-the-box.
Mark Manson says that focus — not multitasking — brings long-term success. When we focus on a person, we develop relationships. When we focus on a task, we establish quality. When we focus on reading, we create comprehension, expand our imagination, and establish a better foundation of knowledge and experience.
Reclaiming reading time in the digital age
“We need to cultivate a new kind of brain: a ‘bi-literate’ reading brain capable of the deepest forms of thought in either digital or traditional mediums,” says Maryanne Wolf, Director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice at UCLA.
t2 hopes provides the space for exactly that — a network where readers can come back to the joys of reading, to not be driven by the end goal — no matter what it may be for each — but instead to be driven by the process and experience of reading itself.
And because content on t2 is curated by humans, not algorithms, the decision on which creative work receives attention is based on the quality of the article and peoples’ reception of it. This human-led curation can help writers and their readers build genuine communities around their subject subcultures, or what we call “territories.” United by their common interest, and the desire to curate better content within, they can work together to create a richer reading experience for all.
Doing our part one reader at a time
We’re not out to solve the global diminishing reading time, far from it. The World Bank says “learning recovery and acceleration requires sustained national political commitment, from the highest political levels to all members of society,” when talking about the global learning poverty.
But what we can do is to encourage and cultivate a culture of reading and writing, where readers and writers come together in subcultures to engage in meaningful conversations about complex topics.
It’s our collective responsibility to ensure that reading and writing remain an integral part of our lives, and that we take steps to reclaim our diminishing reading time.
As technology evolves, so too must we evolve our approach to reading and writing. Technology can be a powerful tool to help us rebuild our attention span, and create a more engaging, immersive, and interactive reading experience. And we hope to do that one reader at a time.