Teens spend all their free time on social media and many don’t read anymore

Should the U.S. follow France’s lead and ban smartphones in schools? Teachers in the U.S. are struggling to keep teens engaged, as they spend record amounts of time scrolling through social media.

Teens are reading for pleasure less than ever today, instead spending hours of free time each day scrolling through social media on their devices, a study published in the journal of Psychology of Popular Media Culture on Monday found.

The study surveyed a sample of approximately 50,000 students from the 8th, 10th and 12th grades from 1976 to 2016, representing more than 1 million teenagers. It found in the mid 2010s, the average 12th-grader spent approximately two hours a day texting, two hours a day on social media, and two hours a day generally surfing the internet. That amounts to six hours per day online.

Meanwhile, one third of students did not read a book in 2016, nearly triple the number reported in the 1970s. In 2016, only 2% of teens read a newspaper each day, down from 33% in the early 1990s. In the late 1970s, some 60% of teens said they read a book or magazine daily but by 2016, just 16% did.

“There’s no lack of intelligence among young people, but they do have less experience focusing for longer periods of time and reading long-form text, “ lead author Jean Twenge, author of the book iGen and professor of psychology at San Diego State University, said.

Emily Jorgensen, who teaches English grades 7, 9, and 11 at a school in Bellevue, Iowa, said the problem has become so pronounced that her school district has had multiple faculty-wide meetings about it. This year, teachers will be allowed to confiscate phones if students are caught using them in class.

She sees technology as an addiction among her students and catches them on their phones daily. “Our principal emphasizes that the best way to keep student off their phone is to keep them fully engaged in learning,” she said. “Which is so true, but it’s also a tall order. Students this age haven’t necessarily learned how to be bored.”

Twenge said the long-term effects of constant social media use has not yet been studied, but that using digital media often involves switching very quickly between tasks, which can effectively shorten the attention spans of young students. They may find it more difficult to read non-fiction or dense texts.

The shortened attention spans could have negative effects on teens’ relationships as well, said Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills psychotherapist and author of ‘The Self-Aware Parent.’

“There is less tolerance today among young people for delayed gratification,” she said. “Psychologically, their young minds are trained to expect a fast response or quick resolution from humans. But humans are not computers, they need time to process and work through feelings, thoughts, ideas, and concepts.”

Teens are also partaking in “adult” activities less often: The number of teenagers who tried alcohol between 2010 and 2016 dropped to 67%. That’s down from 93% for teenagers between 1976 and 1979. The number of teens who had engaged in sexual activity by the end of high school also dropped by 12% between 1994 and 2016. Twenge and other experts have attributed this fall in adult behavior to the meteoric rise of social media and internet use.

Of course, distractions from schoolwork have existed long before phones did, and some teachers find technology useful in teaching. Tara Daniels, an English teacher in New York City, said her students use tablets to enhance the reading experience, highlighting and annotating in the app, easily looking up words they don’t know, and writing notes in the margins.

“We have to stop treating technology as the enemy,” she said. “It can be a distraction, sure, but it can also be a tool.”

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Kari Paul is a personal finance reporter based in New York. You can follow her on Twitter @kari_paul.

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