TEENS READING ONLINE

This article first appeared in Newswrite, the magazine of the NSW Writers’ Centre - July 2017.

A few years ago, a colleague was travelling to work on a crowded train, when they noticed a fellow commuter engrossed in a novel. When she flicked her eyes to the jacket-cover, she spotted a post-it note with three words scrawled on it – DON’T JUDGE ME. What this commuter was reading doesn’t really matter – what’s more fascinating and horrifying was the crippling assumption of judgment and shame that saw her scrawling that note in the first place. DON’T JUDGE ME. For reading a book. DON’T JUDGE ME.

It’s this very public perception of what is and is not appropriate reading that damages many teens’ relationships with reading. And when the occasional think-piece around Australian youth and their reading habits fall back into the “evils of technology” headine-grabbers, they omit many of the positives that technology has to offer.

Upfront, let’s dispel the notion that paperback books are dying at the hand of the ebook. It’s not true – it’s never been true. It’s alarmist, unhelpful and feeding a fear of technology that is creating a barrier between young people who are growing up connected, and disconnected technophobe adults.

The UK’s Publishing Association released data this month, showing ‘a continuation of the drop in eBook sales down 3%’ – a statistic that’s agreed to be reflective of the worldwide publishing industry. But for teen readers especially, this downward trend in ebook sales is not surprising – last year, Scholastic Australia released research that shows 79% of young Australians (aged 7-17) prefer print books to ebooks. Teens prefer paper-based reading, but that doesn’t mean they reject digital reading and all its benefits.

Imagine finding yourself as a questioning youth in a small regional town where everybody knows (almost) everything about you. It’s very likely you’d feel unsafe borrowing from the public or school library – a book like David Levithan’s young adult romance Two Boys Kissing, with a cover to match the title. The books you’re looking for might not even be available in the first place – if you have a librarian who doesn’t like the sound of David Burton’s YA memoir How to Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Sex and Teenage Confusion. Reading materials online allows readers to find sex-positive, inclusive and representative materials, without the hoops to jump and gatekeepers to dodge. There is no denying that the Internet is not always an entirely safe place, but there are spaces where individuals can explore who they are and who they want to be – safely.

There is a long-held belief that most – if not all – teens have access to devices. They don’t – in fact, only 24% of teens have ‘…access to a dedicated e-Reading device such as a Kindle or Kobo’, though 90% have access to mobile phones. Many teens find it necessary to visit their public library to have access to hardware and wifi that many people take for granted.

Griping about the damage technology can do is to ignore the many youth who aren’t privileged enough to complain. There are also many Australians that don’t have access to networks that are strong enough, or present, to allow their children reliable access to the Internet. It is classist and egotistical to dismiss how technology is “corrupting our youth” when many haven’t had the benefit of access in the first place.

Another side to the discussion – conveniently omitted amidst the privileged rhetoric – is access. Many young people require technology to access reading, information and knowledge. Whether managing colour blindness, negotiating dyslexia and visual impairment, or mobility issues – technology has given many in our population access and inclusion, where the traditional book has failed. And yet, this aspect is rarely acknowledged within the discussion.

Privilege is the unspoken component in the technology debate. Many young people – due to geographic isolation – have no access to libraries or bookstores. And yet, with a solid Internet connection, they can read fan fiction, read webcomics, play games, and download ebooks. The world is their oyster – or, their Kindle.

Young people in regional areas are also less likely to have access to comics. A tablet or mobile phone allows them the opportunity to read DC, Marvel or independent comics at the same time as readers across the world. This access and connection can reduce isolation, increase engagement, and provide fantastic reads. It may also be their entrée into the kaleidoscopic modern art world; of everything from Manga to traditional pop-art, and every subversive style in-between. Increasingly with comic books, such stories may be the first time they see themselves represented anywhere in pop-culture – if they read Ms Marvel, for instance, the first ever Pakistani-American superhero.

Technology has become a convenient click-bait subject and scapegoat in the conversation around what is wrong with today’s youth? While it has its downfalls, any negative technology think-piece that deliberately ignores the way an Internet connection has broken down barriers of class and disability is not only wilfully ignorant, but hurtful and harmful. It’s also utterly disrespectful to the real lives and experiences of young people today.

When Deakin questioned teens about the barriers to reading – it wasn’t technology that was mentioned; instead it was the difficulty in choosing a good book and their lack of free time. Instead of criticising technology and its presence in our reading lives, it would be more useful to embrace all formats and create strong readers advisory networks.

Technology isn’t the problem here – but your perception of it, is.