April 10, 2019

At What Cost Social Media: Are People Still Reading?

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By Emma Maurice, US intern at Instinctif Partners

Leisure reading is currently at an all-time low in the US, with the amount of Americans who read for pleasure each day having fallen by more than 30 percent since 2004, according to the latest American Time Use Survey which nationally pulls a representative sample of roughly 26,000 people. Other studies paint a similar picture when it comes to reading in the UK.

Although we may solely look to young people for leading the decline in literacy rates, the “survey data displays decline in leisure reading across all age levels,” with the decline seen most in Americans aged 35-44.

Yet if my nation’s president doesn’t even read, how can his people be expected to? The Washington Post details how Trump refuses to participate in a practice that the last seven US presidents have done: reading the President’s Daily Brief, a document which informs on the most important information collected by US intelligence agencies. Trump has even confessed in July of 2016 to not reading many books at all.

Though when it comes to young people, the statistics are grim. A study of 11,000 children tracked from their birth in 2000 conducted by the University College London found that “social media could be detracting from reading and homework, with a potential knock-on effect on their literacy,” suggesting a link between time spent on social media and levels of literacy. Similarly, the American Psychological Association recently published research finding that less than 20 percent of US teens “report reading a book, magazine, or newspaper daily for pleasure,” yet more than 80 percent say “they use social media every day.”

Social media has become inescapable in our daily lives, its use in both the workplace and in our personal lives now normalized. How has the rise of social media, creeping into all aspects of our lives and eating into our leisure time, affected our reading habits?

In the past, pre-social media age, downtime wouldn’t be spent scrolling through posts on different social media platforms but rather with a book, magazine, or newspaper in hand.

Then came social media. Societies adapted, integrating this transformative method of social connection to such a degree that it is changing human thought and behavior, often without us even realizing it. That, in fact, is the theory originating from the 19th Century known as technological determinism –that technological changes are primarily responsible for social and cultural changes.

According to the book Does Technology Drive History, published by the MIT Press, “By now, most people in modernized societies have become habituated to the seeming power of advancing technology (and its products) to change the way they live.”

In a study conducted by communications agency We are Flint, it was found that over eight in ten UK and US adults use social media. We are Flint’s study found that in general, US adults are frequenting social media more often throughout the day than adults in the UK, with WhatsApp as the only exception as the platform has little to no popularity within the US: “the US caters solely to the domestic market.

And with the ever-present use of social media in our lives, what has been the impact? Does the shift away from time spent reading books herald a decline in literacy or simply a new kind of reading?

Interestingly enough, a 2017 global study conducted by The World Culture Score Index found that readers in the US manage 5 hours and 42 minutes per week whereas UK readers manage 5 hours and 18 minutes. What wasn’t reported on however, was the content being consumed by this study’s participants; anything from “online news to work emails” or even social media content could have been reported as reading within this study.

While the evidence is clear that the amount of time spent reading books for pleasure has significantly gone down in both the US and UK, and time spent on social media has gone up, this consumption of different content and differences in what people may consider reading to be in our technologically driven society must be taken into consideration during research, as it may be clouding the accuracy of some studies.

But regarding all that time spent on social media — could it be put to better use? One writer recently noted that if he swapped his time spent on social media for reading, over the course of one year he could have read 200 books.

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