Screen time is up—here's how to refocus on reading

Fan fiction and other surprising ways to coax kids back to books

Marisa Johnson’s six-year-old daughter was just learning to read independently when her Alameda, California, school shut down last year. Without solid literacy skills and lots of time stuck at home, the tot is spending much more time playing video games and watching shows than reading books.

“She’s definitely reading less,” Johnson says. “The only way we can be alone among ourselves is with screens.”

As many parents know, screen time has ballooned during the pandemic. Recreational device time jumped 67 percent among kids ages four to 17 during lockdown in Germany, according to a study published in Nature. Dubit Limited found an 11 percent increase in screen time among U.S. kids ages two to 15; laptop usage jumped 52 percent, likely due to distance learning.

Although no studies have yet shown that the bump in screen time has resulted in less recreational reading time, it’s possible, says Christine Elgersma, senior editor of learning resources at Common Sense Media. And the combination of learning loss from disrupted schooling and less time spent reading could have consequences.

Research has consistently tied reading activity and proficiency to academic success, increased empathy, and a deeper understanding of the world—all things most parents want for their kids. But if screens have taken over your kids’ lives, parents can still steer kids back toward books, says Maria Russo, former children’s book editor at the New York Times and co-author of How to Raise a Reader.

“If you want your kids to become readers you have to help them find books they love,” she says. “That means that your work is not so much nagging them to read or taking away their devices—your work is helping them discover the kinds of books that excite them.”

Russo admits that it might take a little more work than before, but the methods parents can use to encourage reading in kids hasn’t changed because of the pandemic. Here are some tips to try:

Tap into their interests. Match books to kids’ obsessions—whether it’s animals, history, or Minecraft—and kids are hooked. “Those are kids who cannot wait to read,” Russo says. “They crave those books.”

Consider your kid’s personality when helping them find books. “Some kids are information seekers,” Russo says. “They’re not necessarily reading for the story but to answer their questions.” She suggests atlases or almanacs, like Guinness World Records.

Limit devices and make books accessible. Digital temptations can be hard even for adults to resist, Elgersma says. Making some rules can help. “Setting up some screen-free times and zones in your house encourages kids to find something else to do,” she says. Examples might be before bedtime or on a weekend afternoon.

And then make reading easy: “Have some books you think might appeal to them lying around to tempt kids who are looking for something to do,” she says.

Fill in gaps. For kids who live in homogenous communities, reading books by authors who can offer a realistic glimpse into a different world—whether racial, regional, or socio-economic—can help kids develop empathy and understanding. “This is the world they’re inheriting,” Russo says.

Create readerly habits. Browse in bookstores or make regular trips to the library to help build a habit of seeking out new books, Russo says. And then when they grow up, they’ll pop into bookstores, too. “They find themselves unconsciously emulating how their parents live,” she adds.

Reading for pleasure in front of your kids helps, too, says Theresa Yang, a school librarian and mother of four who recently held a remote literacy night at her kids’ former school on behalf of her company Graphic Campus. “We did a survey asking kids how many of their parents read for pleasure. They all had an answer,” she says. “Kids are very observant of their parents reading habits.” She says she noticed a correlation between the kids who said their parents read and the students who are strong readers.

Explore genres. Graphic novels, poetry, and novels in verse can be easier ways for kids to jump into books if they’re having trouble getting motivated. “You’re not confronted with a wall of text,” says Gene Yang, Theresa’s husband and author of several graphic novels, including the Printz award-winning American-Born Chinese.

Don’t shy away from tough stuff. As kids get older, some parents might worry that the topics in young adult books are too mature. But Russo says if kids are interested, it’s not likely to do them any harm. “Wouldn’t you rather have your kid learn about this stuff through a book instead of the internet?” she asks.

Plus, tough topics can help contextualize what’s happening in their worlds. “You might not think they’re ready to read about drug addiction or police brutality,” Russo says. “But if that’s what their friends are talking about, they want to be in the conversation.”

Encourage fandoms. Diving deep into fan communities by creating and publishing fan art or dressing up like favorite characters can help keep kids excited about books, says Gene Yang, who’s currently writing a Batman / Superman graphic novel for DC Comics. Writing fan fiction in online platforms can be a fun way to mix reading and writing. “I think that fan fiction and cosplay gives people in general—and kids in particular—a way of participating in what they’re reading,” he says.

Create community and connection. Reading doesn’t have to be a solitary experience, Elgersma says. “Reading a book together—out loud or book-club-style—can add a social, connective element,” she says. And that’s something parents can do along with kids or they can help organize virtual sessions with friends. (Here’s how to start a family book club.)

 In breakout rooms at the Yangs’ recent literacy night, teachers led kids in a book scavenger hunt. They asked them to find different books—a favorite book, a specific genre, a book with a certain color cover—and show them on screen. “That activity built a sense of community, even virtually,” Gene says.

Read family stories. Gene Yang recently showed his kids an essay a young cousin had written for school about Yang’s grandparents. “They were so enthralled,” he says, adding that they especially loved reading about their family history through the perspective of another family member. He suggests that parents ask grandparents or siblings for writing stashed in attics or garages. “Every family has a body of literature,” Yang says.

Give in to digital—a little. Research is mixed on the benefits of paper books versus e-books, but Elgersma says if e-books (or even audio books) are what get your kid excited to read, fine. Just steer away from reading apps with lots of interactive features, which have been shown to reduce retention of information, she says.

Don’t worry. For those parents whose children were once readers but now spend their free time plugged into an Xbox, don’t fret, Russo says. As they get closer to adolescence, kids might just be taking a break and trying to define their own identities. “The fact is that books and the written word are a really great way to tell stories and deliver information,” she says. “And when people are looking for that, they’ll gravitate back to books.”

And if reading just isn’t happening right now, don’t be so hard on them (or yourself). “I’ve had a much harder time concentrating on reading in the pandemic,” Gene Yang says. “So I do think people have to have grace for themselves—and for their kids.”

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