For many who grew up prior to widespread availability of the internet, it’s difficult to imagine a life that doesn’t involve reading long-form pieces of writing. Things like books, magazines, newspapers.
A study published last year, however, suggested most teenagers read writing in those in-depth and challenging formats far less often than past generations, preferring instead short-form bits and blurbs of text found in social media posts and elsewhere online.
Is it possible for people who consume information that way to be reasonably well-informed?
It’s a question worth asking, as a populace whose awareness is shaped largely by social media could at some point inherit the earth and its many intractable problems.
I recently revisited stories about the survey after seeing it referenced in articles on trends in media usage. San Diego State University researchers analyzed surveys of more than a million teenagers, ages 13-18, conducted between 1976 and 2016. Among the findings was that the percentage of high school seniors who read a book, magazine or newspaper each day had declined from 60% in the late 70s to 16% in 2016.
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Eighty-two percent of 12th graders, meanwhile, reported visiting social media sites daily in 2016, up from 52% in 2008.
“This is not just a decline in reading on paper — it’s a decline in reading long-form text,” said Jean Twenge, an SDSU professor who led the research, in an article published last year by the university’s news service. Gabrielle Martin, one of the researchers, said in the same article that “scrolling through social media platforms can be a passive way of taking in information, or misinformation, and it requires a shorter attention span. I worry that this doesn’t help develop critical thinking skills in the same way reading traditional media would.”
The possible impact on critical thinking skills is a valid concern — See: the earth and its many intractable problems. The potential for displacement of so-called “legacy media,” especially media like newspapers that strive to bring readers critical information — including information that might otherwise be hidden — also has worrisome ramifications.
As National Newspaper Week draws to a close, it’s worth remembering: Newspapers serve to keep readers not just more informed, but more active and involved civically. They can provide the inspiration to interact with local government — or to become involved in the political process, whether by simply voting or by running for office. Newspapers also routinely bring to light challenges faced by those who might otherwise have no voice.
Much good can come from letting people know what’s going on. Concerned people will generally attempt to make right the wrongs they know about. But they have to know about them. Does anyone really trust fake news-saturated social media platforms to inspire worthwhile change?
I tend to be less pessimistic than some newspaper writers about what the findings of studies like this portend for the future. Media outlets, including newspapers, have been adapting for years to an evolving technology landscape. They’ll continue adapting, and journalism — including long-form, in-depth writing — will survive.
Meanwhile, thoughtful and productive members of every generation tend to grow wiser and seek out more and better sources of real information as they grow older.
Social media isn’t going anywhere, but just because a person invests most of their reading efforts in online bits and blurbs as a teenager doesn’t mean they’ll be satisfied with those as their lives grow more complex, as their connections to their community deepen, as the demand for critical thinking — and the information to fuel it — presents itself time and again.
And when they need that information, they’ll know where to find it. Just as the schools expose kids to books, no doubt developing in many a love of reading long-form fiction and non-fiction, they also familiarize them with the local newspaper, which is used as a learning tool in the classroom.
Is information consumption entirely format-driven — or is it also need-to-know (want-to-know, have-to-know) driven?
To fear that long-form, in-depth writing, including journalism, will eventually go away, one would have to buy into the idea that entire future generations will fail to see any value in it. I’m going to choose to put more belief in young people than that.
John Dilmore is editor of the Roswell Daily Record. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this column are those of the author.