Student Well-Being

The Real Reasons Kids Aren’t Reading More

By Alyson Klein — March 28, 2022 3 min read
An ethnic nine-year old boy plays a game on a digital tablet. He is sitting on a couch in a modern living room.
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The time that teenagers and tweens spend on YouTube, TikTok, and other video-sharing sites has taken off during the pandemic, while reading time among those age groups remains flat.

That was one of the key findings of a recent survey by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit research organization.

Media use—defined as everything from reading books to watching videos to scrolling social media—by kids ages 8 to 18 was already on the upswing before the pandemic. But the pace of the acceleration has quickened significantly due to technology-related media use.

Overall media use rose by just 3 percent for tweens (ages 8-12) between 2015 and 2019, and 11 percent for teens, or kids 13 to 18, over the same period. But in just two years—between 2019 and 2021—social media use for both groups increased by 17 percent, to a little more than five and half hours a day for tweens and just over eight and half hours for teens.

The biggest increase came in watching online videos, which grew by 23 minutes per day for teens, and by a minute for tweens.

One survey finding that could be particularly troubling for educators: Only about a third of tweens and one in 5 teens reported spending some time reading for their own pleasure every day, about the same percentages as in 2019.

Yet reading is a key area of concern for schools trying to address the “unfinished learning” that happened during the pandemic.

Students spend seven to 10 hours a day using online media

Overall, boys tend to spend more time using media generally than girls, and Black and Hispanic kids consume more screen media than their white peers. Kids from low-income families entertain themselves using social media and other online content more than those from higher-income families.

White teens spend an average of seven hours and 49 minutes a day consuming screen media for entertainment, compared with a little more than10 hours for Latino youth, and nine hours and 50 minutes for Black teens. And teens whose families earn $100,000 a year or more spent an average of seven hours and 16 minutes on screens per day, about two hours less than teens from families that make less than $35,000 a year.

Nearly a third of teens say that, if forced to choose, YouTube is the one site they couldn’t live without. Another 20 percent of teens picked Snapchat, a social media platform. And nearly one in six—13 percent—selected Instagram or TikTok.

While it may be tempting to conclude that extra time at home during the pandemic was the big reason for the spike in online video watching, TikTok may be at least partly behind that finding, according to the report. “Platforms like TikTok have continued to swell in popularity, and that may also be driving increased use,” the report said.

What’s more, social media usage surged among tweens, with 18 percent saying they use it every day, compared with 13 percent in 2019. That should be a worrying finding, wrote Michael Robb, Common Sense Media’s senior director of research, in an article highlighting the report’s findings.

“Considering tweens aren’t technically allowed to be on social media platforms at all, this growth in use should be concerning for advocates for safe, healthy, social media platforms,” Robb wrote. (Federal data collection laws prohibit kids under age 13 from using social media platforms.)

Surprisingly, the report notes, there wasn’t a big spike in video game usage during the pandemic, even though kids seemingly had more time to play games like Minecraft and Fortnight.

The report’s findings were based on a survey of a nationally representative sample of 1,306 kids ages 8 to 18, conducted Sept. 29 to Oct. 25, 2021. The findings were compared with a similar survey conducted in the spring of 2019.

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