Sunday, April 17, 2011

Reading Vs. Screen Time

Image by Ohmega 1982Screen-Free Week starts tomorrow, and I hope you’ll join me in rising to the challenge. My family will be unplugging our TV and using our computers only for work-related activities. There are many alternative activities you and your kids can enjoy in lieu of screen time—the LimiTV website and the Simple Kids blog offer suggestions—and, of course, reading is at the top of our list.

For motivation, consider the ways in which reading and television viewing are direct opposites. This list is adapted from an article by the New England League of Middle Schools (which, in turn, credits Jim Trelease’s Read-Aloud Handbook).
  • Television shortens attention spans by segmenting content between commercials and editing content with frequent cuts and narrative jumps.
  • Reading requires and develops a longer attention span.
  • To keep viewers from redirecting their flighty attention elsewhere, on-screen entertainment is almost constant action.
  • Reading can involve action but also accommodates in-depth character and idea development.
  • Television and other viewing inhibits family interaction. When families view TV together (which is not the case when the screen acts as a babysitter), conversation is rare and even actively discouraged.
  • Reading with children is a social activity. When you read aloud to a child, the focus is on the book and the child. As read-aloud veteran Jim Brozina and his daughter discovered, reading together gives families a shared language and a strong bond.
  • On-screen entertainment promotes instant gratification and creates the impression that all problems can be solved in a short period of time.
  • Reading encourages critical thinking (see Why Raise a Reader for more discussion on this point) and unhurried problem solving. By presenting multiple perspectives, reading might help us to redefine the problem itself rather than looking for the quickest fix.
  • Television uses a lower-level vocabulary than most print forms. One study analyzed the scripts of eight popular television programs and found that the average sentence length was only seven words, compared to eighteen words in the local newspaper.
  • Reading builds vocabulary and language skills in general. Even an average children’s book introduces 30.9 “rare words” (beyond the 10,000 most commonly used words) per thousand, compared to 22.7 rare words per thousand on prime time TV.
I would add that most books aren’t trying to sell me anything, other than maybe another book by the same author or publisher through an unobtrusive promo in the back pages. Television programming, in essence, exists to support commercial sponsorship. (Read about the can of worms that is childhood marketing in this fact sheet.)

Moreover, these comparisons don’t factor in technology like gaming systems, the Internet, MP3 players, and cell phones/handheld devices. In our digital age, fussing about TV viewing seems almost quaint. (TV-Turnoff Week was reborn as Screen-Free Week for that reason.) It’s a bigger challenge than ever to go screen-free, but I would venture that the potential benefits are greater as well. Give it a try this week, and share your experience here or on How to Raise a Reader’s Facebook page.
Image by Ohmega1982


  1. I'm delighted to discover your blog and your impassioned, well-argued posts about the importance of reading to children! I'm looking forward to exploring your links (and have added your site to my blogroll). (I run a reading enrichment program at a library, co-lead a French storytime, and am raising my son bilingually with the help of many, many children's books.) Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thank you for your feedback, Sarah! I hope you'll visit often. I enjoyed exploring your site and have added it to my blogroll as well.