Child’s play

In “Playing for All Kinds of Possibilities,” a very fun science article in yesterday’s New York Times, reporter David Dobbs describes how four-year-olds easily beat grown-ups at Blickets, a game invented by child psychologists Alison Gopnik and David Sobel. There seem to have been many versions of Blickets over the years, each designed to ferret out a different nuance of children’s understanding of the world, but in his article Dobbs is describing two that he calls “or” and “and”:

The “or” version is easier: When a blicket is placed atop the machine, it will light the machine up whether placed there by itself or with other pieces. It is either a blicket or it isn’t; it doesn’t depend on the presence of any other object.

In the “and” trial, however, a blicket reveals its blicketness only if both it and another blicket are placed on the machine.

Adults are usually stumped by the “and” version, but it gives children no trouble. Researchers believe that children succeed because they aren’t constrained by “prior biases.” Children don’t have such biases because they simply don’t know much about the world yet, and in their effort to understand, they’re willing to try out all kinds of wild ideas. As they age, they learn that some kinds of hypotheses are less commonly successful than others, and they become less willing to risk belief in these low-probability hypotheses. They grow up to be adults who lose at Blickets. They learn, Dobbs writes, that “‘or’ rules apply far more often in actual life, when a thing’s essence seldom depends on another object’s presence.”

This last claim stuck in my head, and this morning I realized why: I’m not sure it’s true, at least not about a very important category of thing, namely, people. Suppose, instead of playing Blickets with a rectangle, a triangle, and a bridge, we play Lovers with Rilke, Lou, and Gumby. And suppose, instead of placing clay tokens on top of a Blicket Detector, we play the game by leaving our three contestants alone in a room in pairs, to see if they happen to get busy. Rilke + Gumby = nothing. Lou + Gumby = also a blank. But Rilke + Lou = sonnets! Even adults are able to understand that these facts reveal that Rilke and Lou are Lovers, and that Gumby isn’t.

In the psychology experiment, the children were instructed that “the ones that are blickets have blicketness inside,” a somewhat confusing thing to say, given that the property of blicketness is completely fictional and doesn’t correspond to shape, color, weight, or any other physical trait. But adults are able to overcome a similar red herring, in the form of a word for the (also perhaps fictional) essence that qualifies a person as a Lover, namely, love.

As near as I can figure it, any mutually defined, nonhierarchical relationship between people operates in the real world by the same logic as the “and” version of Blickets. You can play Brothers, for example, with Henry James, William James, and William Dean Howells. You can play Rivals with Henry James, William Dean Howells, and Saint Francis of Assisi. You can play Friends with Emerson, Thoreau, and Jefferson Davis. (Note that for all these relationships, we have words for the relevant essence: brotherhood, rivalry, and friendship.)

None of this may matter for Gopnik and Sobel’s conclusion, because it doesn’t alter their finding that children are more willing to try out an unlikely hypothesis about clay triangles than adults are. But I’m not convinced that what children learn when they grow up is that “or” rules apply more often in real life than “and” rules do. It may be that they learn merely that “and” rules tend to be limited to human relationships.

Or it may be that they learn that grown-ups aren’t supposed to think of their toys as living creatures with thoughts and emotions . . .

Does television impair intellect?

As I explained in an earlier post, my review-essay “Twilight of the Books” appears in the 24 December 2007 issue of The New Yorker, and as an online supplement, I’m summarizing some of the data that I drew from, organizing the summaries by topic, and including links where I can. These are merely evidence in raw form and are probably a bit indigestible taken en masse. For analysis and discussion and hopefully a more pleasant read, please see the New Yorker article itself.

Yesterday: Is literacy declining? Today: Does television impair academic performance and cognitive development?

There is little doubt that television is on average bad for a person’s intellectual development. If you read through the studies below, however, you will see that there’s some dispute about whether a small dose of the right kind of television at the proper age might be beneficial.

  • A 2001 meta-analysis of data on more than 1 million students found “little room for doubt concerning the negative nature of the overall linear relationship between television viewing and educational achievement.” However, the analysis also suggested that the relationship was not best graphed as a straight line but rather as “an inverted check mark shape,” also called a curvilinear graph. That is, for each age, there is an optimal viewing time, up to which point television viewing is beneficial, and above which it is harmful. The author, Micha Razel, found that this optimum was 2 hours a day for nine-year-olds, 1.5 hours a day for thirteen-year-olds, and 0.5 hours a day for seventeen-year-olds. The benefit of the optimal viewing time decreased with age. Razel found that 55 percent of the students in the data set were exceeding their optimal viewing time by 3 hours a day, and that this excess viewing was lowering academic achievement by about one grade level. Razel speculated that “the finding of a larger optimal viewing time for younger children may be related to their higher quality viewing,” that is, to the probability that they were watching educational programs under parental supervision. [Micha Razel, “The Complex Model of Television Viewing and Educational Achievement,” {link to citation only} Journal of Educational Research, July/August 2001.]
  • In a summary of pre-2002 research, two authors concluded that “educational television has a substantial positive impact and that entertainment television has a negative impact.” The benefit of shows such as Sesame Street has been extensively documented, the authors wrote. One study found that boys who watched educational television at age five had higher grades even in high school (the effect for girls was not statistically significant). On the other hand, a study of the introduction of television into Canada found that its arrival lowered the reading scores of second graders. The positive impact seems to be limited to educational television watched during the preschool and early elementary-school years, and above an optimum level, television watching hampers academic achievement, in a so-called curvilinear graph. Does television displace reading? Educational programs encourage reading, but entertainment programs do displace it in the early, “decoding” stages when reading is an effortful activity. Once reading habits are established, television seems not to affect them. The authors were not persuaded that television shortened attention spans, interfered with homework, taught children to expect all learning to be effortless, or was inherently disabling of cognition. [Marie Evans Schmidt and Daniel R. Anderson, “The Impact of Television on Cognitive Development and Educational Achievement,” Children and Television: Fifty Years of Research, {book available for purchase} Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2007.]
  • In a longitudinal study of 330 German kindergarteners and second graders, who were assessed through time-use diaries and achievements tests between 1998 and 2001, researchers found that children who watched entertainment television scored significantly lower on tests of phonological awareness, reading skills, and general achievement, even if their viewing was relatively light. The effect increased as time passed, so that by the third grade, heavy viewers were between one and one and a half years behind light viewers in reading scores. Since light viewers outperformed medium viewers, who in turn outperformed heavy viewers, the study seems to contradict the notion that the relation between television viewing and academic achievement is “curvilinear,” that is, that a certain moderate amount of television is beneficial. (Note that heavy viewers in Germany would be classified as normal viewers in America.) In the German study, the correlation between educational television and test-score gains ranged “from insignificant to moderately positive”—much less substantial than American researchers have found. The researchers controlled for IQ, socioeconomic status, and early literacy. [Marco Ennemoser and Wolfgang Schneider, “Relations of Television Viewing and Reading: Findings from a 4-Year Longitudinal Study,”{link to citation only} Journal of Educational Psychology, 2007.]
  • A survey of 1,008 parents in February 2006 found that babies who were eight to sixteen months old knew six to eight fewer words for each additional hour of baby DVDs and videos watched daily. [Frederick J. Zimmerman, Dimitri A. Christakis, and Andrew N. Meltzoff, “Associations between Media Viewing and Language Development in Children under Age 2 Years,” {link to citation only} Journal of Pediatrics, August 2007. Alice Park, “Baby Einsteins: Not so Smart After All,” Time, 6 August 2007. Lisa Guernsey, “The Genius of ‘Baby Einstein’,” New York Times, 16 August 2007.]
  • Through a re-analysis of longitudinal health data for 1,278 children who were seven years old between 1996 and 2000, researchers found that hours spent watching television at ages one and three correlated with a higher likelihood of attention disorder at age seven. The correlation was present even when the data were controlled for factors such as mother’s drug use or socioeconomic status, and the investigators call the link “robust and stable.” Other researchers, however, have questioned the way that the study’s authors defined attention deficit disorder. [Dimitri A. Christakis, Frederick J. Zimmermann, David L. DiGiuseppe, and Carolyn A. McCarty, “Early Television Exposure and Subsequent Attentional Problems in Children,” Pediatrics, April 2004. Roger L. Bertholf, Steve Goodison, Dimitri A. Christakis, and Frederick J. Zimmerman, “Television Viewing and Attention Deficits in Children,” Pediatrics 2004.] Note: A later Danish study failed to replicate the findings; the study’s authors argue that this may have been because Danish infants watched far less television, and a certain threshold was not crossed by them.

  • The effect of television on cognitive development was studied in a later re-analysis of the Christakis etal. data set, this time focusing on about 1,700 children who were six years old between 1996 and 2000. Hours of television watched before age three caused lower scores on several different cognitive tests. Television watched between ages three and five improved scores on a reading recognition test and a short-term memory test, though not on others. [Frederick J. Zimmerman and Dimitri A. Christakis, “Children’s Television Viewing and Cognitive Outcomes,” Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, July 2005.]
  • In a spring 2000 study of 410 third graders in northern California, students with a television in their bedroom scored lower on all tests than those without one, and students with a computer at home scored higher. The lowest scores belonged to students who newly acquired a bedroom television in the course of the study. However, self-reports by the students did not support the hypothesis that television use was displacing homework, in terms of time usage. [Dina L. G. Borzekowski and Thomas N. Robinson, “The Remote, the Mouse, and the No. 2 Pencil: The Household Media Environment and Academic Achievement among Third Grade Students,” Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, July 2005.]
  • A September 1999 survey of 4,508 middle school students in New Hampshire and Vermont found that the more time children spent with television and video games during the week, the less likely they were to have excellent grades, and the more likely to have below-average grades. When the data were adjusted to control for covariates such as level of maternal support and child’s rebelliousness, the correlation between television and grades held up, but the correlation between video games and poor academic performance disappeared. In a later letter, the authors suggested that their evidence on video games was weak because few children in the study played video games for as many hours as they watched television, and argued that if they did, the study would have been able to detect video games’ effect on grades. Academic performance was also impaired by having more cable channels available at home, being allowed by parents to watch any kind of content, and being allowed by parents to watch R-rated movies. [Iman Sharif and James D. Sargent, “Association between Television, Movie, and Video Game Exposure and School Performance,” Pediatrics, 2006. Jerald J. Block, Iman Sharif, and James D. Sargent, “Lack of Association between Video Game Exposure and School Performance,” Pediatrics, February 2007.]
  • The effect of television on attention and learning difficulties was studied through interviews with 678 families in upstate New York between 1983 and 2004, when the families’ children were age fourteen, sixteen, twenty-two, and thirty-three. Fourteen-year-olds who watched one or more hours of television daily were more likely to have poor grades, to fail to complete high school, and not to attend college. The effect was present whether the children tested high or low on verbal skills, and whether or not their parents had completed college. Those who watched more than three hours of television a day at age fourteen were even more susceptible to these failures; they were twice as likely not to earn a college degree as those who had watched less than an hour of television a day at age fourteen. Adolescents who watched more television at age sixteen than at fourteen raised their risk of future failure; those who watched less lowered it. When environmental factors were controlled for, learning problems did not in themselves predict future television watching habits. In other words, television was shown to cause academic failure, but not the other way around. [Jeffrey G. Johnson, Patricia Cohen, Stephanie Kasen, and Judith S. Brook, “Extensive Television Viewing and the Development of Attention and Learning Difficulties during Adolescence,” Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, May 2007.]
  • The effect of television on long-term academic achievement was studied through interviews with 980 New Zealanders born in 1972 and 1973, starting when they were age five and ending when they were twenty-six. The more television the subjects watched during the week in childhood and adolescence, the more likely they were to leave high school without a diploma, and the less likely to earn a college degree. The effects were present even after adjusting for IQ, socioeconomic status, and childhood behavioral problems. The authors considered it possible that a poor academic experience in high school might have been causing some of the increase in adolescent television watching, but point out that there could not have been any reverse causation at work in the strong correlation between childhood television watching and failure to earn a college degree. The less television a child watched, the better his educational outcome; there was “little support for the hypothesis that a small amount of television is beneficial.” [Robert J. Hancox, Barry J. Milne, and Richie Poulton, “Association of Television Viewing During Childhood with Poor Educational Achievement,” Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, July 2005.]

Next: Does internet use improve or impair academic performance? Does it decrease the amount of time spent reading?

UPDATE (27 Feb. 2009): For ease in navigating, here’s a list of all the blog posts I wrote to supplement my New Yorker article “Twilight of the Books”:

Notebook: “Twilight of the Books” (overview)
Are Americans Reading Less?
Are Americans Spending Less on Reading?
Is Literacy Declining?
Does Television Impair Intellect?
Does Internet Use Compromise Reading Time?
Is Reading Online Worse Than Reading Print?
I also later talked about the article on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show and on KUER’s Radio West.
And, as a bonus round: Does media violence lead to real violence, and do video games impair academic performance?

Is literacy declining?

As I explained in an earlier post, my review-essay “Twilight of the Books” appears in the 24 December 2007 issue of The New Yorker, and as an online supplement, I’m summarizing some of the data that I drew from, organizing the summaries by topic, and including links where I can. These are merely evidence in raw form and are probably a bit indigestible taken en masse. For analysis and discussion and hopefully a more pleasant read, please see the New Yorker article itself.

Yesterday: Are Americans spending less money on reading? Today: Is literacy declining?

Explanatory note: You’ll see, if you read through these summaries, that some students of literacy think demographic shifts such as immigration are crucial, and others think they’re largely irrelevant. I’m inclined to the latter opinion myself, but my goal in this list is to present the findings of others in a relatively neutral way.

  • A National Assessment of Educational Progress test of more than 21,000 twelfth graders in 2005 found that the average reading score was 286 on a 500-point scale, down from 292 in 1992. More distressing, the proportion of students at or above a proficient level in reading fell from 40 percent in 1992 to 35 percent in 2005, and the proportion reading at a basic level fell from 80 percent in 1992 to 73 percent in 2005. (At the basic level, corresponding to scores between 265 and 302, a student should be able to, say, extract information from a document and connect it to the outside world. At the proficient level, 302 to 346, a student should be able to “provide [an] example of difference between two editorials” or “specify language that depicts [a] character’s emotional state.” At the advanced level, 346 and above, a student should be able to “interpret [an] author’s belief and provide supporting examples” and “explain [the] symbolic significance of [a] setting.”) When reading scores were differentiated by context, it emerged that, between 1992 and 2005, scores had fallen 2 points in reading for information, 6 in reading to perform a task, and 12 in reading for literary experience, which involves “exploring themes, events, characters, settings, and the language of literary works.” Although the proportion of whites in the student population has declined since 1992, from 74 percent to 67 percent, and that of Hispanics has risen, from 7 percent to 14 percent, the demographic shifts cannot alone account for the fall in reading scores, because the separately tallied scores of whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians all fell between 1992 and 2005. [W. Grigg, P. Donahue, and G. Dion, The Nation’s Report Card: 12th-Grade Reading and Mathematics 2005 (NCES 2007-468), U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2007.]
  • National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests of more than 165,000 fourth graders and more than 159,000 eighth graders found that the average reading score of fourth graders rose moderately from 217 in 1992 to 219 in 2005, and then to 221 in 2007, and the score of eighth graders rose moderately from 260 in 1992 to 262 in 2005, and then to 263 in 2007. The proportion of proficient fourth graders rose from 29 percent in 1992 to 31 percent in 2005; proficiency among eighth graders had risen by exactly the same amount. Tallied separately, fourth-grade reading scores by whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Asian/Pacific Islanders all increased—dramatically in some cases—and there were substantial gains by eighth-grade whites, blacks, and Hispanics. Among fourth graders, scores in reading for literary experience rose from 219 in 1992 to 222 in 2005, and reading for information rose from 214 to 216. Eighth graders improved in reading for literary experience from 259 to 261, in reading for information from 261 to 263, and in reading to perform a task from 261 to 262. [M. Perie, W. Grigg, and P. Donahue, The Nation’s Report Card: Reading 2005 (NCES 2006-451), U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2005; J. Lee, W. Grigg, and P. Donahue, The Nation’s Report Card: Reading 2007 (NCES 2007–496), National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C.; and National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Education Progress “Data Explorer,” incorporating data from reading assessments conducted in 1992, 1994, 1998, 2002, and 2005]
  • The National Assessment of Education Progress also studies long-term trends in reading scores, using tests with an older and different methodology, not comparable with those above. In 2004, the assessment tested more than 11,000 students at each of the ages nine, thirteen, and seventeen. Seventeen-year-olds in 2004 scored 285, the same as they did in 1971. Thirteen-year-olds improved moderately, from 255 in 1971 to 259 in 2004. Nine-year-olds, however, improved dramatically, from 208 in 1971 to 219 in 2004, and most of the improvement occurred after a 1999 assessment. Just as dramatic was the decline in the black-white score gap among nine-year-olds—from 44 points in 1971, to 35 points in 1999, to just 26 points in 2004. When coupled with similar improvement in the white-Hispanic score gap among nine-year-olds, the results would at first glance seem to suggest that the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has been effective, but test results from the regular NAEP “Nation’s Report Card” series (see the paragraph above) suggest that the bulk of the improvement seems to have taken place before 2002, when the NCLB was signed into law. It is nonetheless an intriguing jump, and one wonders what caused it. Looking over the numbers, the only historic parallel is a sharp decline in the white-black gap among seventeen-year-olds in the late 1980s—from 50 points in 1980 to just 20 points in 1988—an improvement that some scholars have attributed to governmental interventions in civil rights, including desegregation. [Marianne Perie and Rebecca Moran, NAEP 2004 Trends in Academic Progress: Three Decades of Student Performance in Reading and Mathematics (NCES 2005-464), U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2005. David Grissmer, Ann Flanagan, and Stephanie Williamson, “Why Did the Black-White Score Gap Narrow in the 1970s and 1980s?” The Black-White Test Score Gap, Brookings Institution, 1998.]
  • In a 2006 report, analysts at ACT, a test manufacturer, noted that only 51 percent of high school graduates who took their test in 2005 were “ready for college-level reading.” Tests administered by the company to eighth and tenth graders, however, showed about 62 percent of the students on track for college reading, suggesting that the slowdown is taking place in the later high school years. The authors note that although the No Child Left Behind Act requires reading standards for elementary school students, many states have none for older students. Questions involving complex texts single out college-ready students better than other kinds, the test-makers find, and so they speculate that high school students are not reading enough complex prose. [ACT, Reading Between the Lines: What the ACT Reveals about College Readiness in Reading, 2006.]
  • In 2003, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy tested over 19,000 adults and found that average prose literacy had declined one point between 1992 and 2003, from 276 to 275 on a 500-point scale, and that document literacy was stable at a score of 271. The proportion of adults deemed proficient in prose and document reading—capable of “comparing viewpoints in two editorials” or “interpreting a table about blood pressure, age, and physical activity”—declined from 15 percent in 1992 to 13 percent in 2003. Some of the changes may be due to demographic shifts, as groups with lower literacy rates have become more populous. Hispanic literacy decreased markedly—35 percent were at a below-basic level of prose literacy in 1992, and 44 percent were in 2003—and seem to have offset gains in literacy among blacks and Asian/Pacific Islanders. Whites maintained the highest literacy scores, but even among whites, proficiency in prose literacy decreased slightly, from 18 percent to 17 percent. Perplexingly, between 1992 and 2003 it became somewhat easier for a person with below-basic literacy to find employment. Only 53 percent of adults with below-basic prose literacy voted in the 2000 presidential election; 84 percent of proficient readers did. [Mark Kutner, Elizabeth Greenberg, and Justin Baer, A First Look at the Literacy of America’s Adults in the 21st Century, NCES 2006-470, National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, 2006. Mark Kutner, Elizabeth Greenberg, Ying Jin, Bridget Boyle, Yung-Chen Hsu, and Eric Dunleavy, Literacy in Everyday Life: Results from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, NCES 2007-480, National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, April 2007.]
  • In a January 2007 report, analysts at the Educational Testing Service, the makers of the SAT and others diagnostic tests, predicted that “by 2030 the average levels of literacy and numeracy in the working-age population will have decreased by about 5 percent.” They based their prediction on estimates of demographic change, noting that “between 2000 and 2005, two-thirds of the nation’s civilian labor-force growth and 86 percent of its employment growth was generated by new immigrant arrivals,” and that these trends were likely to continue. In other words, there will be proportionally more Americans in 2030 from ethnicities that have historically had lower literacy rates. The authors note, however, that on a 2005 adult literacy assessment, U.S.-born Hispanics scored 50 points higher on a 500-point scale than foreign-born Hispanics. (Intriguingly, U.S.-born blacks scored 7 points worse than foreign-born blacks, and U.S.-born Asians scored higher than any other ethnic group, wherever they were born.) When compared to literacy rates in other developed countries, U.S. scores are average. [Irwin Kirsch, Henry Braun, Kentaro Yamamoto, and Andrew Sum, America’s Perfect Storm: Three Forces Changing Our Nation’s Future, Educational Testing Service, January 2007.]

  • Interviews and assessments in 2003 of 3,420 adults in the United States—as part of the international Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey that assessed similar samples in Bermuda, Canada, Italy, Norway, Switzerland, and the Mexican state of Nueva Leon—found that the average American prose literacy score had dropped from 273.7 on a test in 1993 to 268.6 in 2003. The decline was statistically significant and somewhat unusual; of the six regions where comparison was possible, only Italian-speaking Switzerland showed a similar decline. Looking at the American decline more closely, the analysts observed that most of it came from America’s most proficient readers, writing that “there is a small improvement among low-skilled adults only, and a comparatively high decline among high-skilled adults.” In 2003, America outperformed Italy and Nuevo Leon on prose and document literacy, but came in behind Norway, Bermuda, Switzerland, and Canada. [Statistics Canada and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Learning a Living: First Results of the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey, 2005]

Next: Does television impair academic performance and cognitive development?

UPDATE (27 Feb. 2009): For ease in navigating, here’s a list of all the blog posts I wrote to supplement my New Yorker article “Twilight of the Books”:

Notebook: “Twilight of the Books” (overview)
Are Americans Reading Less?
Are Americans Spending Less on Reading?
Is Literacy Declining?
Does Television Impair Intellect?
Does Internet Use Compromise Reading Time?
Is Reading Online Worse Than Reading Print?
I also later talked about the article on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show and on KUER’s Radio West.
And, as a bonus round: Does media violence lead to real violence, and do video games impair academic performance?

Are Americans reading less?

As I explained in an earlier post, my essay “Twilight of the Books” appears in the 24 December 2007 issue of The New Yorker, and as an online supplement, I’m summarizing some of the data that I drew from, organizing the summaries by topic, and including links where I can. These are merely evidence in raw form and are probably a bit indigestible taken en masse. For analysis and discussion and hopefully a more pleasant read, please see the New Yorker article itself.

Yesterday: A list of books quoted in the article. Today’s topic: Are Americans reading less?

  • “When George Gallup interviewed readers in 1937 [for the Book-of-the-Month Club], he found that 29 percent of all adults were reading books at that time. In 1955 the percentage had fallen to 17 percent.” The BOMC thereafter stopped commissioning the surveys, because they felt they were unreliable; Americans were too likely to exaggerate their reading habits to pollsters. [Al Silverman (identified in contributor’s notes as “the president and chief operating officer of the Book-of-the-Month Club”), “The Fragile Pleasure,” Daedalus, 1983.]
  • In a 1978 survey by Yankelovich, Skelly and White of 1,450 adults, which was commissioned by the Book Industry Study Group, 25 percent of Americans said they had read ten or more books in the previous six months, 30 percent said they had read one to nine books, 39 percent said they had read newspapers and magazines but no books, and 6 percent said they had read nothing at all. That is, 55 percent of Americans had read a book in the previous half-year. [Herbert Mitgang, “Study Finds Nearly Half in U.S. Do Not Read Books,” New York Times, 14 November 1978. Ray Walters, “Who Reads What and Why,” New York Times, 19 November 1978.]
  • A survey conducted by an academic consortium found that in 1998, 968 of 1,387 people (69.8 percent) reported having read a novel, short story, poem, or play not required for work or school in the previous twelve months. In 2002, the proportion was roughly the same, 987 out of 1393 (70.9 percent). [James A. Davis, Tom W. Smith, and Peter V. Marsden, General Social Surveys, 1972-2006 {institutional subscription required} (Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research, 2007).]

  • In Reading at Risk, the National Endowment for the Arts reported that the proportion of Americans who had read any creative literature in the previous year declined as follows: 56.9 percent in 1982, 54.0 percent in 1992, 46.7 percent in 2002. In 1982, more than 17,000 people were surveyed; in 1992, more than 12,000; and in 2002, more than 17,000. The proportion who read any book, literary or not, in the previous year declined from 60.9 percent in 1992 to 56.6 percent in 2002. (By comparison, in 2002, 95.7 percent of those surveyed watched at least one hour of television daily in the previous year. But the proportions of readers in other countries are similar: Canada 67 percent, Denmark 55 percent, Sweden 72 percent, United Kingdom 63 percent, Belgium 23 percent, Portugal 15 percent.) Among those who read any books, the median number they read in 2002 was six. Women, whites, the highly educated, the rich, those aged 45-64, and those in the West and Northeast were more likely to be literary readers. When the results were broken down by gender, race/ethnicity, education level, and age, the trend was downward in every subcategory. When age cohorts were compared across time, the trend was also downward. Because the decline is marked within each age group and race/ethnicity group, the decline cannot be explained by demographic shifts. Literary readers were more likely to attend performing arts events, go to museums, volunteer for charity work, and attend or play sports. Those who did not read literature watched 3.1 hours of television daily, as opposed to 2.7 hours daily for literary readers, but overall television watching seemed to have declined very slightly from 1982 to 2002. Because of population growth, the size of the American reading community has remained stable despite the proportional decline. The only increase: the proportion saying they write literature. [National Endowment for the Arts, Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, June 2004.]
  • In the fall of 2005, a survey by Mediamark Research, Inc., found that only 35.4 percent of those surveyed had participated in the leisure activity of book reading in the previous year. This made it one of the highest-ranking leisure activities in the survey, which didn’t report on television watching or listening to music—reading a book had about the same as the frequency as barbecuing. The majority of readers engaged in the activity at least twice a week. [U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2007, table 1225, “Adult Participation in Selected Leisure Activities by Frequency: 2005,” citing Mediamark Research, Inc.]
  • 27 percent of American had read no books in the previous year, an Associated Press–Ipsos poll found in August 2007, in a survey of 1003 adults. The median number of books read was four overall (Gallup Polls found a median of five in 2005, ten in 1999, and six in 1990); seven if only readers were considered. Among readers, the median number of books read for women was nine; for men, five. Those who are white, have college degrees, are over 50, and vote Democratic tend to read more. Those who never attend religious services read nearly twice the number of book as those who attend regularly. The NEA’s report “To Read or Not to Read” points out that the AP-Ipsos poll did not ask respondents to exclude books they read for work or school. [The Associated Press and Ipsos Public Affairs, “Book Study,” interview dates August 6–8, 2007. The Associated Press, “Poll: 1 in 4 U.S. adults read no books last year,” International Herald Tribune, 21 August 2007.]
  • In a 2006 time-budget study, the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the average American (age fifteen and over) reads for 0.33 hours (20 minutes) on weekdays and 0.44 hours (26 minutes) on weekends and holidays. By comparison, he watches television for 2.35 hours (2 hours 21 minutes) on weekdays and 3.10 hours (3 hours 6 minutes) on weekends and holidays. [Bureau of Labor Statistics, Department of Labor, “Table 11. Time spent in leisure and sports activities for the civilian population by selected characteristics, 2006 annual averages,” American Time-Use Survey 2006.]
  • Industry analysts Veronis Suhler Stevenson estimate that there has been little change lately in the number of hours that American spend with consumer books each year: 107 in 2000, 105 in 2001, 109 in 2002, 109 in 2003, 108 in 2004, —* in 2005, and —* in 2006. But there have been declines in the number of hours spent on newspapers and on magazines and increases in time spent with cable television, the internet, out-of-home media (such as billboards and in-elevator televisions), videogames, home video, and mobile electronic devices. [U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2007, table 1110, “Media Usage and Consumer Spending, 2000-2009,” citing earlier reports by Veronis Suhler Stevenson, and Veronis Suhler Stevenson, Communications Industry Forecast, 2007, page 54, table ES.13.] *Note: Veronis Suhler Stevenon provided me with their report as a courtesy and for the purposes of reporting; since they make a living by providing data and since I didn’t end up having room to quote them in the final published article, I’m only giving here the numbers from them that are also available in the Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstract.

  • A 2004 survey of 2,032 school-age children found that on average they had spent 4 hours 15 minutes watching “screen media” (television, video, DVDs, and movies) the previous day, 1 hour 2 minutes on the computer, 49 minutes on video games, and 43 minutes reading for pleasure (books, magazines, newspapers). In a similar 1999 survey, children had watched 4 hours 4 minutes of screen media the previous day, spent 27 minutes on the computer, played video games for 26 minutes, and read for pleasure for 43 minutes (exactly the same amount of time!). The total time spent on media changed very slightly—from 6:19 to 6:21. The increases in consumption were fit in by multitasking. In 2004, 73 percent of the students surveyed said they had read for pleasure at least five minutes the previous day; 47 percent said they had read at least thirty minutes. Heavy users of any particular medium tended to consume more of all other kinds of media than light or moderate users. [Donald F. Roberts, Ulla G. Foehr, and Victoria Rideout, Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year-Olds, The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, March 2005, pages 24, 26, 37, 52.]

  • In a study of multitasking, using data collected in 2003 and 2004, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that schoolchildren read for fun as their primary activity 2.14 hours a week but only focused on it exclusively 38 percent of the time. The children watched television as their primary activity 16.56 hours a week, and focused on it exclusively 55 percent of the time. The analysis drew on media-use diaries kept by 694 students. [Ulla G. Foehr, Media Multitasking among American Youth: Prevalence, Predictors, and Pairings, Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, December 2006, pages 18-19.]

  • A 2005 survey of parents of children six and under found that the average child spends 1 hour 36 minutes daily consuming “screen media” (television, videos, video games, or computers), and only 40 minutes daily with a book (reading or being read to). 43 percent of children under age two watch television every day. 54 percent of two- to three-year-olds know how to change channels with the remote. 43 percent of four- to six-year-olds have a television in the bedroom; when their parents are asked about it, 30 percent say it’s to help the children fall asleep. The data were collected by a telephone survey of 1051 parents in November 2005. [Victoria Rideout and Elizabeth Hamel, The Media Family: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers, Preschoolers and Their Parents, Kaiser Family Foundation, May 2006, pages 8, 18, 26.]
  • The proportion of twelfth graders who read for fun on their own at least once a month has declined as follows: 77 percent in 1992, 72 percent in 1994, 71 percent in 1998, 66 percent in 2002, and 70 percent in 2005. The proportion who talk with friends at least once a week about what they are reading has declined thus: 54 percent in 1992, 50 percent in 1994, 51 percent in 1998, 35 percent in 2002, and 37 percent in 2005. [National Center for Education Statistics, “National Assessment of Education Progress Data Explorer,” incorporating data from reading assessments conducted in 1992, 1994, 1998, 2002, and 2005.]

  • According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s long-term data (which are distinct from its main data set), the proportion of nine-year-olds who read for fun at least once a month fluctuated between 88 percent in 1984, 86 percent in 1999, and 87 percent in 2004. The proportion of thirteen-year-olds declined steadily, from 84 percent in 1984, to 81 percent in 1999, to 79 percent in 2004, as did the proportion of seventeen-year-olds, from 81 percent in 1984, to 72 percent in 1999, to 67 percent in 2004. The proportion of seventeen-year-olds who “never or hardly ever” read for fun rose from 9 percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 2004. [Marianne Perie and Rebecca Moran, NAEP 2004 Trends in Academic Progress: Three Decades of Student Performance in Reading and Mathematics (NCES 2005-464), U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2005.]
  • In 1970, there were 62,107,527 daily newspapers printed in the United States, or 0.30 per person (the U.S. population in 1970 was 205,052,174). In 2006, there were 52,329,230, or 0.17 papers per person (the U.S. population in 2006 was 299,398,484). [U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States 2007, table 1114, “Daily and Sunday Newspapers—Number and Circulation, 1970–2005,” quoting Editor and Publisher International Year Book. Editor and Publisher International Year Book 2007.]
  • Daily newspaper readership declined from 57 percent in 1999 to 52 percent in 2005, according to Scarborough Research. According to the Editor & Publisher International Year Book, total weekday newspaper circulation has declined steadily since 1990, as follows: 62.3 million in 1990, 58.2 million in 1995, 55.8 million in 2000, and 53.3 million in 2005. [The Project for Excellence in Journalism, State of the News Media 2007: An Annual Report on American Journalism].

  • In 2006, the Pew Research Center polled 3,204 adults for its biennial news consumption survey. In 1994, 49 percent of adults surveyed had read the newspaper the day before; in 2006, 43 percent had, including online readers. Newspaper readership has declined in every age category, and in all but the youngest age-cohort categories. The proportion of survey respondents who had read a magazine the day before declined from 33 percent in 1994 to 24 percent in 2006, but the number who had read a book unrelated to work or school rose, from 31 percent in 1994 to 38 percent in 2006. When people are asked why they don’t read newspapers, the fourth-most-popular answer is “Don’t like to read.” [The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, Online Papers Modestly Boost Newspaper Readership; Maturing Internet News Audience Broader Than Deep: 2006 News Consumption and Believability Study, 30 July 2006, pages 8, 20, 24.]
  • In a 2005 review of the sociological research about reading, three authors posited that a “reading class” will emerge. They noted that the National Endowment for the Arts (see above) and Dutch studies (see below) have found marked declines in reading. The authors have no idea whether book-reading will be a marker of prestige, as it was in the age before mass literacy, or merely “an increasingly arcane hobby.” [Wendy Griswold, Terry McDonnell, and Nathan Wright, “Reading and the Reading Class in the Twenty-First Century,” {institutional subscription required} Annual Review of Sociology 2005.]
  • Between 1955 and 1995, sociologists in the Netherlands studied leisure time by asking participants to fill out time-use diaries. The Dutch scholars found dramatic shifts in reading and television-watching habits, especially in the first two decades, which witnessed the introduction of television to the Netherlands. Reading on weekday evenings and weekends fell from 5.0 hours/week to 4.0 between 1955 and 1962, while television watching rose from 0.2 to 5.4. The rise of television and fall of reading continued in the next two decades, though at slower rates. Between 1975 and 1995, the total hours a week spent reading fell from 6.1 to 4.6 hours, while television watching rose from 10.2 to 12.4. (The Dutch methodology changed in 1975 from measuring just evenings and weekends, to measuring all hours of the week.) In 1955, reading took up 21 percent of people’s spare time; it took up only 9 percent in 1995. In the 1950s, men read more than women, but by the 1990s, women read more than men. [Wim Knulst and Gerbert Kraaykamp, “The Decline of Reading: Leisure Reading Trends in the Netherlands, 1955-1995,” Netherlands’ Journal of Social Sciences, 1997.]

Tomorrow (or thereabouts): Are Americans spending less money on reading?

UPDATE (27 Feb. 2009): For ease in navigating, here’s a list of all the blog posts I wrote to supplement my New Yorker article “Twilight of the Books”:

Notebook: “Twilight of the Books” (overview)
Are Americans Reading Less?
Are Americans Spending Less on Reading?
Is Literacy Declining?
Does Television Impair Intellect?
Does Internet Use Compromise Reading Time?
Is Reading Online Worse Than Reading Print?
I also later talked about the article on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show and on KUER’s Radio West.
And, as a bonus round: Does media violence lead to real violence, and do video games impair academic performance?