Technology is not turning the young into puddings

The new Luddism is to denigrate modern technology – smartphones, social media, and anything else which you are uncomfortable with – by accusing it of having adverse effects on younger people. We worry about trusting them with it, try to restrict its use, and make disparaging remarks about attention span, concentration, even the ability to read books.

Needless to say, all the growing myths about these adverse effects are just that: myths. Find one half-decent piece of research to support these ‘subjective feelings’ or ‘obvious truths’ and I will be most surprised.

Thankfully some carefully-conducted surveys in the US, conducted and reported by the Pew Research Center, should dispel any misgivings that we might have.

These studies have focussed on the reading habits of Americans aged 16-29, comparing them with older adults of 30+, and have been conducted over several years. Although the main objective is to obtain information about library use, the results contain a lot that is much more broadly applicable. Furthermore, in some countries such as the UK, funding for public libraries has recently been cut so substantially that many have closed; one recent claim is that, with widespread internet access, libraries are no longer the valuable asset to society that they once were.

Although reading patterns are quite complex across the different age groups, the 16-29 year olds tended to read more than their elders: 24% read a book (including print, audio, and electronic books) at least once a week, against only 18% of those aged 30+. It is heartening to see that 43% of the younger group (16-29) reported reading a book every day or almost every day, although that was not statistically different from the older group (40%). Sadly adults aged 65+ were the least likely to have read a book in the past year – which I find both surprising and worrying.

The age group most likely to borrow most of the books which they read is the 16-17 year olds, but 37% of the older (30+) group said that they borrowed most books too.

Bookstore visits, and those to museums, art galleries, etc., are impressively popular too: 32% of the younger and older groups reported that they regularly visit bookstores, and rather less (26% of younger, 21% of older) visit museums, art galleries, etc. The peak users of both categories were those aged 25-29.

There are indications that higher usage of devices for music, talk radio, and social media are being reflected in lower usage of TV and movies: for example, 93% of the younger group (16-29) listened to music, talk radio, or podcasts every day, compared with only 78% of the older (30+) group; but only 71% of the younger group watched TV or movies on any device, against 80% of the older group.

Another surprise is in views about the availability of useful and important information on the internet. Younger people appear more aware of the internet’s limitations: 62% of the younger group felt that there is a lot of useful, important information that is not available on the internet, but only 53% of the older group agreed with that.

One other result sticks out in my mind: in US studies, women, African-Americans and Hispanics, adults who live in lower-income households, and adults with lower levels of educational attainment are more likely than other groups to say that public library services are “very important” to them and their families.

So, should we worry about the claimed ‘adverse effects’ of all this technology on book reading? Well, if there is any effect it appears to promote book reading, not to reduce it. Yes, smartphones, tablets, social media, and the other trappings primarily of the younger generation are actually encouraging them to read more, not less. Proper books, too, not just tweets.

What we should worry about is that cutting libraries and library services will affect a substantial proportion of the population, and that adverse effects will be worst among the most vulnerable sectors. Libraries mean literacy: cut libraries and you will cut literacy, and increase those stuck forever in intellectual poverty.