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Jean Twenge: Gen Z Isn’t Reading

Zoomers were born into smartphones, not Shakespeare

Social psychologist Jean Twenge has been researching technology and generational trends for the past few years and has emerged with some prescient insights for “Gen Z,” those born roughly between 1996 and 2010. Gen Z, or “Zoomers,” grew up with the Internet, whereas former generations grew up with television –– certainly an addicting medium, but not nearly so invasive as the smartphone and its host of dopamine-crazy apps like Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube. Millennials and Gen X-ers, according to the data, still interacted with longform reading. The same isn’t quite true of the Zoomers.

Twenge released a new article on her Substack channel on the reading habits of college students and points out that very few members of Gen Z are digesting books for pleasure. Reading, she notes, isn’t “natural,” but must be taught. However, given the media environment kids are growing up in today, reading is becoming a lost skill. She writes,

Reading is not natural for humans the way that speaking is. Children learn how to speak by hearing others speak. Reading is different: It must initially be taught, and then it must be practiced. For most people, the more you read, the faster you can read, and that pays off later in school and at work.

Are books dead? Why Gen Z doesn’t read – by Jean M. Twenge (substack.com)

Some might note that this is simply the way the wheel turns. In comes a new form of media, out goes the old. This has been happening since the dawn of literacy, right? Maybe. But maybe not. Perhaps reading, especially longform works, is essential to understanding complex ideas and learning how to think critically. In free societies like ours, reading is a necessary prerequisite to responsible citizenship. Twenge continues,

Reading long-form text, including books, is necessary for success in college, graduate school, and in many jobs. It’s also useful for understanding politics, policy, and parenting. Thus, if there have been changes in reading among young people, that has implications for education, the workforce, families, and for our democracy.

When I was a sophomore in college, I took a class in existentialism where we met once a week early in the morning and read long texts (novels by Marilynne Robinson, Dostoevsky, and David Foster Wallace) for nearly five hours straight. We had to turn in our phones beforehand, and after the reading session, would discuss the themes, characters, and potential meaning of what we had read. The professor of the class was motivated to do this in part because he had an upper-level student, one of his best, who could not read for more than three minutes without checking his phone. He was understandably concerned that even a bright up-and-coming scholar was not at all immune from the tyranny of fragmentary attention spans. I can relate. Even as I write this, the temptation to snatch up the phone sitting behind me steadily mounts.

The class was formative for me simply by giving a space for uninterrupted reading time. I was lucky enough, although I am a member of Gen Z, to grow up in a family and in a school that prioritized reading. It also helped that I didn’t get a smartphone until I was sixteen or so. My reading habits were already in place before I was introduced to the pantheon of online distraction. My class in college brought me back on track. Grad school helped, too. What then of those who never had the chance to form reading habits in the first place? Today’s youngsters are opening up their first iPhones on their ninth birthday parties. Who has the time for The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter when the shimmer of the screen already takes over?

Those small acts of resistance, like offering a phone-free class dedicated merely to reading great books, can help. Parents instilling a love of reading in their kids will do heaps of good, too. As we are being hypnotized by fifteen-second soundbites, crafting the ability to attend to longer works of art will only become a rarer, but more valuable, skillset.

Peter Biles

Writer and Editor, Center for Science & Culture
Peter Biles graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois and went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories and has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma and serves as Managing Editor of Mind Matters.

Jean Twenge: Gen Z Isn’t Reading