Do you find you skim where you used to, well, read? Welcome to the club. Reading in the age of social media has retrained our brains - and our attention spans - to take text in snack-sized bites. But the good news is, you can increase your reading fitness, and help your kids to do the same.
Most of us can remember when Twitter’s 144-character limit seemed ridiculous. Today it feels positively generous. We increasingly get our news and information in caption form - and our entertainment, too. And that’s if there’s any text at all.
Because more and more, the content that grabs our attention is primarily visual. It communicates in pictures first, and words second - if at all. Think Instagram. Think TikTok. Think memes and emojis.
Sure, most of us still read articles … sometimes. But be honest. When a link appears on your Facebook page, how often do you like or share based on the photo and the headline - without ever bothering to click, let alone to read that post to the very end.
In fact, if you’ve gotten this far in this post - you can count yourself an unusually fit reader by today’s standards.
TLDR - Too long, didn't read - is a popular internet acronym. And it pretty much sums the problem up.
How are brains are changing
So what is all this doing to our brains?
US cognitive neuroscientist Professor Maryanne Wolf is the author of Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. Her research shows we remember less when we read from a screen instead of a page.
Today, instead of immersing ourselves - and reading every word - we are more likely to sweep our eyes in an “F” or “Z” pattern across a chunk of text, seeking out the information we need or want.
Says Wolf, "When the reading brain skims like this, it reduces time allocated to deep reading processes. In other words, we don't have time to grasp complexity, to understand another's feelings, to perceive beauty, and to create thoughts of the reader's own," she writes. In short, we don't get the vast majority of the benefits of reading.”
And that leads to bigger problems - for us, and for our children.
... we don't have time to grasp complexity, to understand another's feelings, to perceive beauty, and to create thoughts of the reader's own.
"The subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy affects us all," she warns. "It affects our ability to navigate a constant bombardment of information. It incentivizes a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery."
The good news
Depressing, right? But the good news is, our capacity to read deeply is a habit we’ve allowed to atrophy (or in the case of our kids, perhaps one they’ve never actually cultivated). After all, notes Wolf and other thinkers, notably Dr. Christine Nystrom of New York University, author of an influential article titled “Literacy as Deviance,” there is nothing “natural” about reading.
It’s a skill that needs to be practiced, daily if possible. Wolf admits that she herself was becoming “the reader I was worried about…. I had to do some serious discipline to re-find that rhythm of the deep reader.”
She told ABC News she forced herself to read a thick, dense novel for a screen-free 20 minutes each night, and now does the same each morning, following 20 minutes of meditation.
For adults, it’s a case of “use it or lose it.”
For kids, who may never acquired the skill, a more gradual approach along the same lines will probably be necessary - although it’s important to avoid turning reading time into a punishment.
Journalist Susan Maushart, author of The Winter of Our Disconnect, found when she banned all connected devices for six months, her three teens picked up and finished half-read books they had discarded years earlier.
The problem, she admitted, was keeping the deep reading habit going once devices were switched back on. “If I could do it over again, I’d definitely consider setting aside one evening a week as Literacy Night, where we all just sat around with special snacks and read our books.
“Why couldn’t that be as special as a movie night?”
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