Twitter will render children illiterate in 20 years

From The Bookseller:

Novelist Howard Jacobson has said children may be illiterate in 20 years’ time, thanks to the rise of smartphones and social media platforms such as Twitter.

The journalist and 2010 Man Booker prize-winner told The Times that childrens’ capacity to concentrate on books was being adversely affected by social media and smartphones, conceding even his own concentration span had been “shot by this bloody screen”.

As a result, in the space of 20 years he predicted “we will have children who can’t read, who don’t want to read”.

“I can’t read any more as much as I used to. My concentration has been shot by this bloody screen. I can’t do it now — I want space, I want white pages, light behind the page,” he said.

. . . .

Some Twitter users have hit back at Jacobson’s views.

Author Nikesh Shukla said Jacobson’s view was “snobby”, “boring” and “wrong”, while trade marketing manager at Bounce Marketing, Graeme Williams, said on the platform: “Awww. I remember when they said this about texting when I was a young’un. Somewhere someone probably said the same about telegrams.”

Meanwhile, also to the contrary, drawing on its research the National Literacy Trust (NLT) said new technologies can play “a hugely important role” in helping to develop children’s literacy skills.

Its research showed e-books positively impact teenage boys’ reading motivation and skills, when a 2015 project saw the percentage of boys who felt reading was “difficult” cut in half from 28.0% to 15.9%, suggesting confidence in their own reading ability also increased as a result of using technology. Another 2016 research project saw six in 10 (59.7%) early years practitioners say they would like to increase the use of touch screens.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

33 thoughts on “Twitter will render children illiterate in 20 years”

  1. They said the exact same thing about comic books back in the 1950’s.

    I doubt there will be any change at all in the percentage of kids that like to read full fiction. If anything, the variety of choices thanks to ebooks will probably encourage more kids to read.

    • I read comic books back in the day and I remember becoming illiterate shortly after I graduated from law school.

      • Not even kidding: my college fiction writing program completely turned me off to reading. (I hated the snobby fascination with literary fiction and the distain for genre. I switched majors to computer science.) It took twenty years for me to start reading fiction regularly for pleasure again, and write my first novel.

        • My experience wasn’t quite that bad, but I can understand what you mean. I majored in English. Fortunately, I got my degree from a school with at least one professor who was interested in genre stuff, so I was able to take classes on Tolkien and sci-fi, and some of the other profs were friendly toward genre so that I was able to use examples from Buffy and such in my papers. But most of the actual required reading (those were all for general major elective classes) were so dull, I don’t think I actually fully read a single assigned novel from most of my classes.

          At one point, I tried to take a film criticism type class at that school. On the first day, we went around the room with everyone saying their favorite movie. The movies they named, most of them I either didn’t know about or thought were boring. I was last. I said my favorite movie was Return of the King. The whole class gave me the strangest looks. Between that and seeing the syllabus, I told the teacher after the class, “I don’t think this class is for me,” and she was like, “Yeah, I think you’re right.”

          • @ Shawna

            LOL. Classics Illustrated to the rescue! My HS English classes required reading of such authors as Austin and Dickens — deadly dull and stupefying to a teenage boy (except for A Tale of Two Cities — a very atypical Dickens novel). Our teachers were hip to students trying to slide using Cliff Notes and would ask Qs about stuff that CN didn’t cover.

            However, CI covered those Qs, to my happy surprise! 🙂

          • Shawna, reminds me of my experience. I didn’t go on to get an MFA, because I simply did not want to read more novels that I mostly tolerated rather than loved. Dissecting them was fun, but reading them wasn’t always a thrill.

            I did NOT have genre-friendly professors, except for mystery/detective. The sci-fi/fantasy stories that were acceptable were the “literary” ones. And forget about genre romance. At the time, I was big into SF and romance, as well as poetry. So, really, unless I was gonna focus on poetry, I did not see the point of an MFA.

            Although my fave film is Sense and Sensibility. 😀 That one would have passed.

            But if I ever have to read MIDDLEMARCH again, just shoot me.

    • And they said the same thing about TV, calculators, PCs…

      It’s a miracle today’s kids can walk and chew gum at the same time.

      • Literacy is amazingly resilient, and the doom-sayers amazingly wrong. They seem to have a limited view of literacy, defined by what people read rather than their ability to freely choose what they read.

      • @ Felix

        “It’s a miracle today’s kids can walk and chew gum at the same time.”

        Some of them can’t. Ditto for some adults, too!

    • I was just about to say the same thing. And I know for sure that I knew such words and phrases as “omnipotent,” “cretin,” and “well nigh” thanks to Victor Von Doom and Thor.

  2. Of course, he’s assuming that none of these children who’ll be illiterate in 20 years have ebooks on their smartphones. He’d rather bemoan a benighted future wherein nobody reads, because, OMG–who’s going to buy his books then?!?

  3. In school we were forced to sit in front of a computer and type along with the Mavis Beacon software in order to learn how to be quick typists. I really didn’t have a knack for it and still “chicken pecked” with my fingers. I remember it bothering me terribly that the keys weren’t in alphabetical order. At that point, most of our homework was still handwritten, so it really didn’t matter what my skills were.

    It wasn’t until I started using Instant Messengers like MSN and AIM to talk to my friends (and cute girls) that my typing speed skyrocketed.

    Technology will always present new distractions, but I daresay he is not so much enthralled by the technology itself as opposed to the media. This could also have a positive outcome for the next generation of readers. After all, what do those social media platforms consist of? Pictures and videos sure, but also text. As fiction authors, we have to captivate our audience with a flow of words… even if it means sparking that initial interest in 140 characters or less.

  4. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. –Matthew 6:34

    The year I was born, doomsayers predicted the world would run out of zinc in 1977. Did not happen. Paul Ehrlich predicted nations would go to war for food in the 1970s and that hundreds of millions would starve. Did not happen. In 1970, the consensus of scientists in was that the Earth would enter a man-made ice age by 2000. Did not happen.

    The calamities of 2037 are not on my radar. And this one is small potatoes compared to other predictions of doom. Jacobson needs to step up his game.

    • Ah, the club of Rome and LIMITS TO GROWTH.

      All-time greatest example of hidden assumptions and the perils of ignoring the power of the STEM tribe. It’s hard to accurately extrapolate the future when millions of STEMers are merrily rebuilding it day after day.

  5. My kids (two millennials and one in middle school) avoid Twitter and Facebook like the plague. They say they’re for “old people.” (My wife, who loves Facebook, doesn’t think this is funny at all.) None of my nieces or nephews use these sites regularly either. Just based on personal observations, I think it’s a mistake to assume Facebook or Twitter are playing any great role in the development of our youth. Twenty years from now, they may be as relevant as the Sears catalog.

    OTOH, all three of my children were -and remain- avid readers. They read on paper, on tablets, and sometimes on cell phones. The older two have also tried their hand at writing, but gave up fairly quickly when they realized their dad has the “most boring job in the world.” It seems to me the important thing is introducing kids to reading at a young age. The habit may come and go throughout their lives, but it will never entirely go away.

    • …avoid Twitter and Facebook like the plague.

      Yes. My daughter uses Snapchat and the app Houseparty. She reads intermittently, and well, but prefers to consume story via TV and movies.

      My son prefers to chat with his friends using a voiceover app while playing games on Steam. He’s an avid reader, close to a book a day.

      (They are twins – turned 15 today.)

    • My daughter going into high school this year and all her friends avidly use facebook to communicate with each other. I was kind of surprised at that myself.

  6. This is a little behind. Kids today already do not want to read, preferring to consume audiobooks instead. With the way everything is shortened and abbreviated, I think we’ll be way worse than we are now, or even than this article indicates, twenty years from now.

  7. I recall reading one of Isaac Asimov’s science columns in F&SF* — about forty years ago — in which he noted that through most of human history the literacy rate was only two or three percent. His point being that the modern day rate is an anomaly.

    As for Twitter, et al., if the Department of Education hasn’t managed to completely obliterate literacy, then nothing will.

    *The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

  8. I wonder if this guy is factoring in that a lot of people have a lower ability to focus (for various reasons) as they get older. My dad, for example, practically never reads anymore because of eye focusing issues, but he listens to audiobooks constantly. The OP may be trying to blame new fangled technology for his own aging process.

    • I was wondering if he might need glasses, or perhaps, cataract surgery. Often your vision decreases so gradually, you’re not aware of a physical problem until long after you cut down on something like reading. Screens make it possible to increase font size, so you compensate that way.

      My left eye was fairly useless over the past year and a half. Fortunately, I already wear glasses and have my eyes examined yearly. Had cataract surgery on my left eye a couple of months ago and am once again reading more. I can’t wait to get the right eye done!

      • My dad had surgery to remove at least one cataract and had both lenses replaced with artificial lenses (so he doesn’t have to wear glasses for long-distance like he used to), but for some reason he still can’t focus on printed words for more than 15 minutes or so at a time.

  9. Anecdata: I’ve observed in the classroom (grad school and now high school) that attention spans and the ability to concentrate on a piece of text for an extended period are weaker now than 20 years ago. I do not believe that Facebook, texting, et al are entirely to blame, but I think they have made it easier to avoid needing to focus for extended periods (30 min at a stretch or longer).

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