You are waiting for your food at a restaurant. Near you, four diners sit in silence at a table. Each diner is operating a cellular telephone.
If you have seen this picture, you already know that digital media have replaced conversation for many. Typically, they are young, but not always. Children, fathers, mothers, and even grandparents can be in the same room, each being entertained – none of them knowing what the others are watching.
According to a recent study, that change is even bigger than it appears. The study relates that the average high school senior spent six hours a day online in 2016. Ten years ago, the common figure was half of that.
The Rise of Digital Media
The study is titled, “Trends in U.S. Adolescents’ Media Use, 1976–2016: The Rise of Digital Media, the Decline of TV, and the (Near) Demise of Print.”1 Prepared by Jean M. Twenge, Gabrielle N. Martin, and Brian H. Spitzberg of San Diego State University, the work is based on one hundred eleven studies published from 1965 to 2018.
The conclusions will be familiar to anyone who has been awake during that fifty-plus-year period of time, but it is important to have actual data to back up random observations.
The study differentiates between ‘legacy media’ (books, newspapers, TV, movies, etc.) and digital media (all of the newer ways of getting information, mostly online). Legacy and digital media can be used at the same time. You can use your phone to look up an unfamiliar word while reading. An e-reader (Nook, Kindle, etc.) straddles both sets of media. You can carry around a whole library of Victorian novels on your device.
However, such dual use is rare. The majority of users use much less legacy media while their use of digital media increases. The study’s authors call this change “displacement.”
The Data of Displacement
The central question of the issue involves the amount of such displacement. The answer is quite a lot. The study found that 60% of twelfth graders read a book or magazine daily during the late seventies. That number went down to only 16% who could make a similar claim by 2015. Those same modern high school seniors watched about two-thirds the amount of television as their seventies counterparts.
At the same time, twelfth graders’ use of the Internet doubled (from one to two hours daily) between 2006 and 2016. That is in addition to the two hours a day that they spend text messaging, and two more hours spent on social media. This group is reading much less – an average of two books a year. Three times as many twelfth graders reported reading no books for pleasure (as opposed to assignments) in 2016 as in the seventies.
Interestingly, this is not just true of books. The number watching television has declined as well, although it is still about two hours a day. Likewise, significantly fewer of them (64% vs. 44%) go to movies a few times each month.
Adding the hours devoted to digital media and television reveals that these students are spending eight hours a day in front of some sort of screen – nearly triple the amount of time that was common during the seventies.
The Hope and the Challenge
Educational theorists claim students are gaining information during all of that screen time. Certainly, the user of digital media has access to materials that would have been undreamed of in the seventies. Books that have been out of print for a century can be in your hands in seconds. Documentary films long hidden in metal cans can be viewed at your convenience. Census records and other government statistics are at your fingertips without a trip to a university library.
In this respect, the report makes a very interesting and significant point, “Information expands, but the time needed to absorb it does not.”
This picture is significant to society as a whole, but it is of incredible importance to those whose task it is to relay information. Simply put, the number of people reading books is in serious decline at exactly the time that the number of titles being published is skyrocketing.
Likewise, university freshmen are on average far less well read than were their fathers and grandfathers. To those who are trying to teach those freshmen, this means that the literature book of 1200 pages or the standard text on the history of the United States is even more likely to go unread than it was fifty years ago. This leads to the kind of teaching of opinion that is decried in Anthony Esolen’s Up from the Ashes and Everett Piper’s Not a Day Care. Indeed, teaching opinion will increase significantly while the teaching of objective truth will continue to deteriorate.
The digital media promotes a world in which there is more information but less wisdom. It is easy to get information on the Internet. It takes wisdom to sift that information in a search for truth.
1. Twenge, J. M., Martin, G. N., & Spitzberg, B. H. (2018, August 16). “Trends in U.S. Adolescents’ Media Use, 1976–2016: The Rise of Digital Media, the Decline of TV, and the (Near) Demise of Print.” Psychology of Popular Media Culture. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/ppm0000203, accessed 9/6/18