Most of us can remember being read to when little, and some recall reading as among the pleasures of childhood — especially if they grew up before the Internet. But there’s more to reading than that. Reading for pleasure appears to lay the groundwork for cognitive development and well-being in adolescence, according to a new study which also found a side benefit: kids who read for pleasure are likely to spend less time on social media and electronic devices.
Learning to read is a skill that children learn through both play — interacting with picture-based reading materials shared with parents and caregivers — and systematic practice over months and years. It is different from learning to speak and use language. When kids hear books being read, it strengthens their language skills and whets their appetite for reading for pleasure. When a child learns to read, it is often one of the first ways they experience a sense of accomplishment.
Brains are developing during childhood and adolescence, so it’s a key time to establish mental habits that support cognitive development and brain health. To see if encouraging children to read from an early age has a positive effect on their brain development, cognition and mental health later in life, researchers from the Universities of Cambridge and Warwick in the UK and Fudan University in China analyzed clinical interviews, cognitive tests, mental and behavioral assessments and brain scans using data on more than 10,000 young adolescents from the Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development (ABCD) cohort in the U.S.
Kids who experienced reading as a pleasure at an early age were less troubled by stress and depression, had fewer behavior problems and larger brain volumes. Even so, you can read too much, however.
Forty-eight percent of the 10,243 participants had little experience of reading for pleasure or did not begin doing so until later in their childhood. The other 5,000-plus participants had spent between three and ten years reading for pleasure. The analyses controlled for many important factors, including socio-economic status.
Reading for pleasure at an early age was found to be linked to performing well on cognitive tests that measured such factors as verbal learning, memory and speech development, and academic achievement in adolescence. These kids also appeared to have better mental well-being — were less troubled by stress and depression — based on clinical assessments, parent and teacher reports. They also had fewer behavioral problems.
Parents of young children will be happy to note that less screen time in adolescence was a side benefit to early reading for pleasure. Kids who read for pleasure also tended to sleep longer.
Brain scans taken in adolescence showed that those participants who had taken to reading for pleasure at an early age had moderately larger total brain areas and volumes, particularly in regions related to thinking. Brain regions related to better mental health, behavior and attention were also more developed.
You can read too much. The team found that the ideal amount of reading for pleasure as a young child was around 12 hours per week, and its value dropped off after that.
In fact, cognition gradually decreased with more reading, which the researchers believe may be because the children were spending more time being sedentary and less time on sports and social activities that also enrich cognition.
“We encourage parents to do their best to awaken the joy of reading in their children at an early age,” researcher Jianfeng Feng from Fudan University in Shanghai, China, and the University of Warwick, said. “Done right, this will not only give them pleasure and enjoyment, but will also help their development and encourage long-term reading habits, which may also prove beneficial into adult life.”
The study is published in Psychological Medicine.