Saturday, October 28, 2023

Why my undergrads struggle to read


A student recently confided in me that she spends over six hours a day on TikTok. As an English professor with 25 years of teaching experience, I know this is not an uncommon problem among my undergrads. While I sympathize with their addiction, it is now their responsibility to address it, and ours as educators to help them do so.

TikTok’s latest efforts to limit daily screen time to one hour by default for users under 18 is a step in the right direction, but it is too little too late. As a teacher of environmental literature, I have seen firsthand the long-term effects of digital addiction on my students. Many of them cannot read, not because they are illiterate, but because they lack the attention span to sit and read a chapter from a book.

This crisis of attention is symptomatic of a broader mental health crisis among our young people. An informal poll of my nearly 300 students this semester revealed that only 13% did not suffer from intense anxiety on a regular basis. A third reported that their anxiety keeps them from reading assigned texts, while half said they have trouble paying attention when reading, even when their phones are off.

Social media use has been linked to mental health challenges, and TikTok’s hyper-personalized algorithms have rewired the brains of our young people to seek out short bursts of dopamine rather than sustained engagement with literature or nature. As a result, many of my students are overstimulated, depressed, and exhausted.

I fear that literature, which is a repository of our dearest values and a way to grow empathy and imagination, is going the way of the cassette tape and dodo bird. Environmental literature, in particular, invites students to be more present and appreciative of natural beauty and the beauty of stories and words. As catastrophic climate change looms, we have no time to waste in appreciating the beauty of nature.

But many of my students have never been allowed to roam freely outside and play. They are anxious and still young on a planet whose long-term habitability is uncertain. They crave views of their Instagram stories as if their survival depended on it. They deal with their anxiety in ways that end up amplifying it.

As educators, we must help our students cultivate gratitude and grit, even when they don’t feel like it. We must encourage them to find supportive, in-person community, wherever that may be. And we must teach them to slow down and look at something real, to appreciate the wonder of the world around them.

I find hope in teaching English majors and creative writing minors, who seem to use social media less often than their non-major peers. In my eco-writing workshop, I have seen students learn to appreciate the natural world and the power of language to express their feelings and ideas.

Ultimately, what’s at stake here is our collective brain. If we don’t address the attention crisis among our young people, we will not be able to deal with the climate crisis. We need thoughtfulness, social cohesion, and focus to tackle the challenges of this century. As educators, it is our responsibility to help our students develop these skills and values.

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