Friday, April 17, 2009

Kids as readers; kids as media junkies

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation study called "Generation M," kids ages 8 to 18 spend almost 6.5 hours a day using media, 7 days a week. Mostly, they're watching television (nearly 4 hours a day), but they're also listening to music (almost 2 hours a day), using the computer for non-homework purposes (1 hour a day), and playing video games (5o minutes a day). Yes, that adds up to more than 6.5 hours, but that's because kids are multitasking - using more than one medium at a time.

As for reading books, magazines, or newspapers for pleasure - they're doing that 43 minutes a day! (You think that's bad - chores only get 32 minutes and homework gets 50 minutes). And yes, many kids are reading while listening to music, watching tv, and so on.

This might get a big so-what shrug from a lot of people - 43 minutes of reading a day isn't so bad, considering how busy kids are, and they're exercising their fascinating new Net Generation brains with all this non-sequential, non-linear electronic multitasking. Read Marc Prensky's "Don't Bother Me Mom - I'm Reading" or Don Tapscott's Grown Up Digital for some positive takes on this new phenomenon.

Consider, though, what the National Endowment for the Arts has to say about the ramifications of not reading. Its 2007 study "To Read or Not to Read," based on 2004 data, concludes that Americans are spending less time reading, their reading skills are eroding, and (most importantly) these declines have serious civic, social, cultural, and economic implications. People who can't read well are less likely to graduate from high school and to get good jobs, and they are much more likely to go to prison (only 3% of the U.S. prison population reads at a "proficient" level). In contrast, people who read well get better jobs, are more likely to donate time and money to their communities and to engage in cultural activities.

What it boils down to is - the more you read voluntarily - for pleasure - the better you get at it. And the better you are at reading, the more likely it is that you will succeed in life.

So when I think about those 4 hours of television-watching (as opposed to 43 minutes of reading), I get worried. And what are we to make of this statistic? - in 2004, 53% of 9-year-olds read for pleasure almost every day, but 33% of 13-year-olds and only 22% of 17-year-olds read for pleasure. What happens at puberty that makes books so dang unappealing to teens? And how can we children's librarians get more 9-year-olds to read for pleasure?

Sophie Brookover and Elizabeth Burns of Pop Goes the Library! fame - the blog and the book - argue that all those hours of media saturation is why a firm knowledge and even embracing of pop culture is essential to making our libraries relevant and exciting to kids today. If we don't know what kids care about, believe me, it shows. So perhaps one key is to attract kids by appealing to their media-savvy souls. Are the kids in your community crazy about a particular tv show? Throw a Dance With the Stars party (maybe a dance instructor? maybe a contest?), but be sure to use books, music, and DVDs from your collection to give your program substance.

Another approach might be to use digital media to enhance children's enjoyment and sharing of old-fashioned books. Kids can create multi-media extravaganzas in the library using cool computer applications; their creations can be posted on the library's website, on YouTube, shared via Facebook (13 and older only, please!) or iPhone, and so on. An example is Storytubes, a library contest in which kids make videos of themselves promoting their favorite books, and the Learning Curve program at the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library is a high-tech paradise.

I believe with all my heart that reading well is more important than ever, and that reading for pleasure can set kids on that road. Libraries have always been the best at leading kids to books that make them want to read, and we need to figure out ways that we can continue to do this. Times are changing - no, times have changed already - and librarians need to meet the future with open arms but also with eyes firmly on our mission. No groaning, no wistful backward glances. Onward!

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