Reading’s Impact on Youth Mental Health: Don’t Let Books Collect Dust.
By: Nandini Gupta
Reading’s Impact on Youth Mental Health: Low Rates in Reading
Reading’s Impact on Youth Mental Health: Reading is in decline –
A report surveying reading habits in the United States made evident that Americans were spending an average of almost 17 minutes per day reading for personal interest. This was in comparison to almost three hours watching television and 28 minutes playing games and using computers for leisure.
The youth spent less than 10 minutes daily reading for personal interest.
The percentage of adults who read at least one book for pleasure recorded new lows, falling below 53 percent.
Over 55 percent of those with at least a bachelor’s degree read a novel or short story in a year. Amongst those with high school education, less than 35 percent had read any novel, short story, or work of history.
A survey analyzing US teenagers since 1976 found a seismic shift in how they were spending their free time. In 2016, it was reported that the average grade 12 student spent a staggering six hours a day staring at a mobile screen. This number would increase if other online activities were to be included.
Teenagers didn’t always spend that much time on social media. But, since 2006, that time doubled, with social media becoming a daily rather than periodic activity.
All these left books to gather dust.
And that’s taken a toll on peoples’ mental health.
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Reading’s Impact on Youth Mental Health: The Benefits of Reading
Reading isn’t just a matter of pleasure. It has benefits beyond enjoyment.
Studies have shown that reading as few as six minutes per day reduces stress, improves the quality of sleep, and sharpens mental acuity. It strengthens the neural circuits and pathways of the brain and also lowers heart rate and blood pressure.
Reading leads to building stronger relationships and offers a stronger sense of shared understanding. This is because the ability to empathize and engage with diverse stories and people of different backgrounds brings a greater sense of human connection and empathy. And reading makes all this possible.
Research shows that reading literally changes your mind. MRI scans prove that reading involves a complex network of circuits and signals in the brain. As one’s reading ability increases, those networks also get stronger and more sophisticated.
In a study conducted in 2013, study participants read the novel “Pompeii” over the course of nine days. As the tension in the novel grew, more and more areas of the brain lit up with activity. Thus, the effects of reading on the brain are crucial to development.
People who read literary fiction displayed a heightened ability to understand the feelings and behaviours of others. This ability is referred to as the “theory of mind,” which is essential for building, navigating, and maintaining social relationships. While reading a single work of fiction isn’t going to develop this ability, research shows that long-term fiction readers will have a better-developed theory of mind.
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Apart from building robust mental health, reading also enriches one’s vocabulary. Reading researchers as far back as the 1960s have discussed what’s known as “the Matthew effect.” A term referring to the biblical verse Matthew 13:12, the idea sums up that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, a concept that applies as much to money as it does to vocabulary. The verse literally says:
“Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.”
Research has shown that those who start reading from a young age gradually develop large vocabularies and vocabulary size can affect many aspects of one’s life. For instance, a 2019 poll conducted by Cengage showed that 69 percent of employers are looking for candidates with soft skills, which includes the ability to communicate effectively. Reading more increases one’s exposure to new words, which are learned in context, thereby benefitting one’s communication skills.
Reading might also play an important role in preventing illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease. Seniors who read every day have a higher chance of beating the disease since they’re maintaining and improving their cognitive functioning.
Last but not least, reading helps alleviate depression symptoms. British philosopher, Sir Roger Scruton once wrote, “Consolation from imaginary things is not an imaginary consolation.” Feelings of isolation are common amongst those who face depression. And reading can help lift that burden.
Reading fiction can help lift someone from their world and be swept into the imagined experiences of the characters. And non-fiction self-help books can guide people on how to manage their symptoms well.
Reading’s Impact on Youth Mental Health: Reading More
So how can you read more?
Back in 1998, Roy Baumeister, a psychologist, and his colleagues conducted their well-known “chocolate chip cookie and radish” experiment. Subjects of the experiment were split into three groups, and they were asked not to eat anything three hours prior to the experiment. During the experiment, the first group was given chocolate chip cookies and radishes and were told that they could only eat the radishes. The second group was given the same foods and were told that they could eat anything they liked. The final group was given no food at all. All the three groups were then given an impossible puzzle to solve to see who would cave the soonest. The result? The first group was the fastest to cave since they had spent all their willpower trying not to touch the chocolate chip cookies.
So how does this relate to reading?
If the chocolate chip cookies are replaced with a television, then all this might make sense. When there is a television or in fact, any electronic device constantly sitting in front of people, their willpower to tackle the books decreases as so many interesting things online tempt them. Hence, reducing online presence to read more is crucial.
Joining online book clubs, subscribing to newsletters and reading lists, and making an online book reading account, for instance, on Goodreads, can motivate one to read that next book.
Stephen King advised people to read for five hours a day. While that might seem like a lot, taking small steps to increase one’s reading time is definitely possible. Whether it’s reading in the morning, before bed, on the commute, or during work breaks, squeezing in time for reading is key.
So what should I read?
More than what one reads, the fact that one reads is more important. It could be Taylor Jenkin Reid’s “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo” or Rumi’s “The Essential Rumi.” It doesn’t matter. Not letting books collect dust is good in itself.
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“New Evidence on Waning American Reading Habits.” American Academy of Arts & Sciences, American Academy of Arts & Sciences, 15 July 2019.
Gallo, Amy, et al. “8 Ways to Read (a Lot) More Books This Year.” Harvard Business Review, 17 May 2017
Jean Twenge Professor of Psychology. “Why It Matters That Teens Are Reading Less.” The Conversation, The Conversation, 20 July 2021.
Martinez, Katie. “Reading Books Can Benefit Your Mental Health.” Step Up For Mental Health, 5 Nov. 2020
Stanborough, Rebecca Joy. “Benefits of Reading Books: For Your Physical and Mental Health.” Healthline Media, 15 Oct. 2019.
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Tags: low rates in reading, Mental Health, mental health and reading, reading, reading decline, reading impact on mental health, reading more, reading's impact on youth mental heatlh, social and youth development, the benefits of reading, why should you read more, Youth Development,