February 12, 2016KR BlogReading

“If Social Media Wasn’t a Thing”: The Sanctity of Reading Time

A recent This American Life episode offers a glimpse into the social politics surrounding teenage girls’ Instagram use. Of the three teens who lend their voices to this segment, Ira Glass says, “They’re online all the time, constantly getting updates on the social standing of everybody they know, in detail and at incredible speed.” The segment considers how and why teenage girls comment positively on their friends’ Instagram photos—a practice one of the girls describes as “a social obligation.” This commenting process is complex. It reveals how close friends may be, and it can also help build new friendships or expose rifts.

Listening to these girls describe their Instagram habits is fascinating. At one point, they detail how their online habits are part of an effort to promote their own personal “brand” in order to stay or become “relevant.” If I felt somewhat unnerved hearing these teens describe themselves in marketing terminology, that uneasiness only grew when Glass asked how quickly someone must respond to a friend’s selfie. One girl says, “Within ten minutes, I think.” Her friend adds, “People are always on Instagram. Everyone’s always on Instagram.”

This is when I found myself thinking, “If kids are on Instagram all the time, and if they’re expected to comment on posts within mere minutes, how in the world do they find time to read for pleasure?” You know, the kind of thing I did as a kid, back when I had to walk uphill both ways to school. In the snow. With no shoes.

I’m well aware that by worrying about these teenagers’ reading habits, I was making an unfair snap judgment based on a generational difference. Let’s face it: If Instagram had been around when I was thirteen, I might be just as consumed as these girls. But listening to that This American Life segment reconfirmed how the rise of social media (and the Internet more generally) cuts into the time we have available to read a book or, more simply, to sit quietly with our thoughts.

That goes for all of us, not just teenagers. I often keep my phone next to me when I read. Every few chapters or so, I might put down the book and check my email or scroll through Facebook. (Not when reading Ferrante, though. Never then.) If I get a text, I might pause my reading and spend a few seconds with my phone instead. Maybe that’s just modern life. But I also spend plenty of time away from my phone, and I grew up without cell phones at all. I wondered what it might mean when young teenagers in particular are so attached to their phones that they don’t have the quiet space to think and read for an uninterrupted period of time.

Some research on this very topic is available, including the Pew Internet and American Life Project’s examination of literacy among younger Americans and Jessica E. Moyer’s dissertation, “Teens Today Don’t Read Books Anymore: A Study of Differences in Comprehension and Interest Across Formats,” among others. And then there are books like The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr:

For my part, I decided to learn more by going straight to the source—teenage girls who both read for pleasure and use social media regularly. Three teenage girls were kind enough to participate in my extremely non-scientific questionnaire about social media use and reading. As far as I could tell, the girls I questioned don’t use Instagram as heavily as the teenagers interviewed for This American Life, and they also come from book- and writing-friendly families, so that likely skews their answers to one end of the bookworm spectrum. Still, their responses were illuminating.

When asked how often they use Instagram, two of my respondents paint a picture of moderation: a couple of times a week or “once a day, when I can.” My third respondent is a more frequent user, saying she spends a few hours every day on her phone, and that she’s typically on Instagram throughout that time. Aside from Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr accounted for major uses of time spent on social media. And all three girls read novels for pleasure, with their books of choice ranging from realistic fiction to science fiction and mysteries.

When I asked these girls how often they check their phones while reading and whether they think social media impacts their reading time, I found that they largely view reading time as sacred—even if social media does sometimes get in the way.

“If I’m reading for pleasure I don’t check my phone, since the opportunity is so rare,” Audrey, 15, explains. Similarly, Solana, 14, says she avoids checking her phone because her reading time is often limited. My third respondent, meanwhile, acknowledges that she stops reading to check her phone every fifteen to twenty minutes. (I give her points for honesty.)

When asked if they believe social media impacts their personal reading time, all three girls considered that it does—negatively. “It keeps me away from my book,” one girl admits. Solana pointed out that “recently I haven’t had a lot of time for pleasure reading and that could definitely be a result of social media. I think with the free time I have, I do spend a lot of time on the Internet.”

But online habits don’t always spell disaster for reading. Thanks so social media, particularly Twitter, Audrey says she reads more news articles than she would otherwise. Solana says social media draws her attention to the novels others are reading and thus provides her with good book recommendations.

So I think there’s a balance. Many of us use social media to our own detriment at times, and I was probably too harsh to jump to conclusions about how the phenomenon of teenage girls commenting on each other’s selfies is responsible for a decline in reading time. When I get right down to it, asking these girls about their social media use highlighted the ways in which my own online habits might negatively affect my own reading.

After all, I can certainly relate to something Audrey shared: “Although I love to read, if social media wasn’t a thing I would be reading a lot more than I do.”