Screen time is up, and book time is down. Should we worry?

The Guardian and BBC are both reporting on the growth of ‘screen culture’ for young people.

In particular, it is pointed out that the numbers of kids reading for pleasure is down from 84% – 74% in the two years from 2006-2008, while socialising on the internet and playing videogames are apparently big winners.

I must say, it first occured to me to wonder how much of this trend can be attributed to the end of the Harry Potter series. I also wonder if the growth of communications use is actually just about multi-tasking facilitated by access to phones or webtools that let kids have easier access to Facebook etc. That is to say, doing the same things kids were always doing but it is easier to text or have an instant message client running at the same time.

Anyway, what really worries me about our analysis of these numbers is that they are never accompanied by any analysis of the quality or propriety of what is being consumed.

Reading is down, and videogames are up. We assume disaster, because we believe reading is inherently good and videogames and the net are at best a waste of time and at worst morally damaging.

But surely the time has come to acknowledge that reading is crucial and irreplaceable by any other media, reading total rubbish is not. Playing certain videogames probably will be a waste of time, while others will stretch the mind and the imagination.

So, coverage of the amount of time spent on reading for pleasure or playing games or watching TV is important. However, without a more evaluative analysis of what is being actually consumed on the different media, it is always more likely to promote a panic which may or may not be justified…

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Screen time is up, and book time is down. Should we worry?

  1. The Economist reports that the figures for literacy in the US have increased and, in particular, the number of adults who said they had read a novel, short story, poem or play in the past 12 months had gone up, rising from 47% of the population in 2002 to over 50% in 2008.

    http://www.economist.com/world/unitedstates/displaystory.cfm?story_id=12941110

  2. Good post. And sure, the screen does have a detrimental effect on some readers, but there are plenty of others for whom it’s a gateway to reading that books don’t match.

    You could also say it calls into question why we rely so heavily on books, but then bloggers are a self-selecting group of technophiles who would say that.

  3. Research in the US indicates that pre-school children who are good at recalling narrative features of TV programmes go on to be better readers. The BFI’s Reframing Literacy initiative in the UK indicates that integrating film study into literacy lessons raises standards in reading. However, I’d suggest that more important than either of these is the fact that film, TV and games are enormously important cultural phenomena in their own right and deserve a little more informed attention and debate about how audiences use, understand and enjoy these media. Why is the debate (such as it is) about children and media always cast in the form of these queasy concerns about time spent, rather than focusing on the quality of the experience?

  4. Ian

    Cary – I agree completely regarding the validity of other media in their own right. Some examples of film and TV are taken pretty seriously already (how many conversations about The Wire have you had this week?!), so in particular, I would want to see more excitement about the potential of games as a developing medium.

    People are already doing fascinating things with user creativity in this space in particular. I pointed to Little Big Planet in the post, but Spore and the Sims series are also good examples.

    There is also real scope for interesting approaches to narrative and story telling. It is early days for video games, but the green shoots like David Cage’s Heavy Rain are interesting. While certainly not a game for kids, his ideas about malleable stories that bend around the interactions of the player and game AI point to the unique potential of this medium.

    Others are doing equally cool things with immersing players in digital environments – Eskil Steenberg’s independent and experimental development, simply titled Love, looks amazing.

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