As a student teacher, I FINALLY had my spring break two weeks ago. I had been looking forward to a week of quiet relaxation for what felt like way too long. One of the things I was most excited for was the chance to finally sit down and read a book – something I hadn’t been able to do all semester because I lacked the time and energy. I chose a book that I had been thinking about for a while and opened it up, ready to get lost in the story.
In the 20 minutes I could stand to focus on staring at the pages, I stopped to check my phone at least six times. Why was I seemingly more drawn to looking at meaningless information on my social media apps than the adventure-filled story sitting right in my lap? I had hundreds of pages of thought-provoking content right in front of me that I so badly wanted to read and learn from. For some reason, I simply could not focus on the book. However, I easily focused on the endless stream of mundane posts on the screen of my phone.
Digital screens are everywhere and constantly illuminate our lives. Phones, computers, gaming consoles, billboards and tablets provide a never-ending stream of textual information from which people are having an increasingly difficult time escaping. Screens continue to consume every aspect of our lives. They are at work, school, home and even in our pockets, ready to be accessed at all times. They are constantly on and we seemingly never stop staring at them.
The internet plays a primary role in this screen obsession. The infinite digital space has led to an epidemic of writing and reading. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the amount of time people spend reading has actually tripled since 1980. Ordinary citizens contribute to the endless stream of information accessible through the internet by writing about 1.5 million blog posts per day. People also write 12 billion comments, quips and statements daily through social media platforms.
Many forms of content, including thought-provoking articles and E-books, weather reports, listicles about Disney princesses, scholarly articles and misinformed political analyses all occupy the same space on screen and can all be easily accessed. Perhaps this is a reason behind internet-readers’ tendency to skim while reading; it has become a defense against the avalanche of biased, inaccurate and self-centered information that has hijacked literary fiction, accurate reportage and appropriate analysis. We consume writing constantly, but often it is meaningless, speculative or poorly researched.
Much of the information we find on social media, blogs and internet articles is also brief, which caters to millennials’ textual attention deficit disorder (ADD) as we read while itching to move on to the next bit of information somewhere else on the internet. Our desire for short, to-the-point bits of information likely comes in part from being overwhelmed by the endless amount of content that we are constantly exposed to. That might explain why many millennials are so interested in looking at Buzzfeed-style listicles that include often meaningless information (such as a recent one about Disney princesses reimagined with watermelons for heads: https://www.buzzfeed.com/jenlewis/if-disney-princesses-were-watermelons#.noXKMaQLL9 ) through images and (sometimes) short bits of textual content.
Not only are we attracted to words online that are accompanied by memes and other images, but we also get sucked in by words that are links to other pages with more words. The cycle never ends. This continuous online text consumption is also driven by our constant thumbs up/thumbs down approach to reality. In addition to (or sometimes instead of) reading articles and blog posts online to learn, people read because it is absolutely necessary (to them) to include their comments and opinions.
Reading online is changing the way we think. While books strengthen our critical thinking skills, online content often encourages a more utilitarian way of thinking by provoking a need to react to information by doing – such as by looking up further information, tweeting comments about it or sharing it with friends to find out their opinions – rather than taking the time to truly contemplate it. Additionally, by reading content on screen we can assemble our own truth from pieces, rather than reading about an idea or a new perception of reality through a book. Books help readers grow by questioning the ways they see the world. We pick and choose what we read online in order to support our already-established belief systems. How much are we really learning by reading this way?
Reading online has its benefits too, of course. Reading content through social media allows users to connect with people all over the world, helping them maintain social connections and support networks that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. News outlets online help readers get information they need instantly. The internet offers endless resources for students of all ages. If used correctly, the internet serves as an easily accessible learning tool.
TL;DR – Millennials’ obsessive use of the internet is not making us read less. Rather, it is changing the way we read, which in turn changes the ways we perceive the world. While the internet is an important resource, it is important that we do not let it control every aspect of our learning.