‘Crisis’: New screen time warning for parents

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Digital devices are robbing us of our time and reducing our ability to focus on simple pleasures like reading a book.

It’s a crisis that’s been brewing for years, with many of us stuck in a battle for our attention. And now experts are more concerned than ever for our cognitive health.

Mary-Ruth Mendel, speech and language pathologist and co-founder of The Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation, says our reliance on devices is altering the way we think, act and engage with people.

“It’s robbing us of what’s been a cornerstone of adults and children growing up … how we talk and listen, how we have robust conversations and build capacity to think,” she says.

“We’re facing a crisis and anecdotally, children’s ability to know enough words and speak up for themselves (is decreasing).”

Indeed, our cognitive abilities are less than what they were, and it’s impacting how we read.

New research from Kindle reveals 26 per cent of Australians struggle to find time for reading, with Gen Zs (28 per cent) and Millennials (30 per cent) finding it tedious. Fifty per cent had only read between 1-5 books last year.


So how can we reclaim our minds and time with books? Well, test your attention span by reading the rest of this story without interruption.

Technology is sadly turning us into skimmers or surface readers.

Psychologist and founder of Parentshop, Michael Hawton, says recent studies show students who read texts on screens perform a little worse than students who read on paper.

“Reading from paper stops students from flicking, scanning and surface reading … which is the default mode on a device,” he says.

Tech devices are sadly turning younger generations into skimmers or surface readers.Tech devices are sadly turning younger generations into skimmers or surface readers.

“If a student has to read from a printed page, they read in a linear way and retain more information. When screen-reading becomes the norm, students will decrease their ability to read on paper.

“If we are reading less and flicking more, that would suggest our cognitive complexity is affected.”

According to Mendel, devices have somewhat catapulted children into an environment in which consistent attention is impossible.

“Their skills are not there, they are not as verbal or confident … they seem to be lost in the world,” she says.

“We can empower adults to create conversations with children during reading time. For example, ask them ‘Tell me what you see?’

“Stop and explore the language and illustration, predict what’s coming up and how it connects to the world around us. Otherwise the next generation will potentially not have a sophisticated vocabulary which will curtail their reading comprehension.”

Avid book reader Faith Elhelou at home with her collection of books. Picture: Jeremy PiperAvid book reader Faith Elhelou at home with her collection of books. Picture: Jeremy Piper


Make reading a pleasurable part of your everyday life by choosing books that interest you, and joining a book club or online reading community.

Set aside a certain amount of time every day dedicated solely to reading. No checking emails or browsing the web during this time.

Set goals for yourself such as aiming to finish one book a week or month.

Matt Galanos, author of the Dane Thorburn fantasy series, says reading a good book restores calm in a frantic, technology driven world.

“When you’re turning pages, you feel as though you’re making real progress, and as the story builds and your pulse quickens, you find yourself wanting to turn to the next page,” he says.

“It forces you to put the device down and allow yourself to experience different sensations.”

Faith Elhelou, 18, owns 230 books and hopes to reach her goal of 1000 this year.

“I love how books transport you into different worlds and lives … it’s a nice escape,” she says. “It gets the mind working in ways a smartphone can’t. It requires focus, imagination, and allows you to interpret the text you’re reading in your own way.”


● Establish good habits: Read more books to your children at bedtime and take books (not devices) to adult social outings.

● Balance is key: As kids get towards middle childhood, ensure that their book use is at least on par with their device use. Practice may not make perfect, but practice makes something more likely.

● Create a discussion: Routinely ask your children lots of curious questions about what they heard or read. A simple way that comprehension (receiving and understanding information) can be developed is by expressing what we have read to others (usually in spoken words).

Source: Psychologist and founder of Parentshop, Michael Hawton


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Penguin Random House Australia will be hosting a special activity on Bondi Beach to encourage Sydneysiders to get reading this summer. Simply ask staff for a sampler novel and enjoy a read under the sun.

Details: February 4, from 11am. Campbell Parade entry, opposite Hall Street

Originally published as ‘Crisis’: How screen time has robbed us of reading

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