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Reading protects teens from severe depression, new study shows.

April 6, 2011

Reading: Better than Prozac, Justin Bieber or the iPad.

The novelist and nonfiction writer Les Standiford, speaking at Nova Southeastern University a couple of weeks ago, made the declaration that literature will survive because “people need stories.” Indeed they do, but with all respect to my old friend, in the future they won’t get their stories from books.

In the latest and one of the most depressing steps toward a post-literate society, Time-Warner Cable earlier this month rolled out a new app that streams television directly to the iPad. A controversy immediately flamed up as channel owners protested that Time-Warner doesn’t own the rights to stream their programming.

But these details will get ironed out. So will the location restriction. Right now, you can only access Time-Warner Cable on your iPad when you are at home. You have to subscribe to both cable and Internet service from Time-Warner, but the point, says company president Rob Marcus, is that the new app “allows you to turn any room into a TV room” using your iPad.

Imagine taking the iPad for a soak in the tube while you catch up with your favorite reality show. Or, as Brian Stelter says in The New York times, “Imagine a son watching ‘SpongeBob’ on an iPad while his father watches basketball on the big-screen TV.”

Now imagine this: A time, right around the corner, when cable companies and other providers can stream TV programming directly to your iPad anywhere you are: At the beach, on the train, in the airport lounge.

How many people will turn to books for their story fix then?

My guess: Almost none. Reading requires a bit of effort and concentration before it yields its pleasures. Television is more like a bowl of M&Ms: Instant, effortless chocolaty goodness.

This all puts me in mind of a lumbering, shaggy fellow who used to work at the Sun-Sentinel as a copy editor back in the ’90s. He shared his love of history and science with me outside in the smoking area. He was especially taken, I’ll always remember, by William Manchester’s history of the Dark Ages, A World Lit by Fire.

Always charmed by people who like to read, after that I gave this man cast-off review copies I thought he might like, and he accepted them with avidity and gratitude. That is, until one day when I ran into him on the way out of the building and asked if he needed something to read.

No, he replied, he had just upgraded his cable, and now he got six or eight history and science channels. He didn’t need to read anymore. He got his history fix from his TV.

I’ve been singing this sad dirge about a future without books since I started writing this blog. Many intelligent friends have kindly taken the time to disagree with me–most of them resting their argument on the same solid truth Les did: People need stories.

Alas, I hope they are right and the horse-and-buggy of books survive the heavy traffic of information highway. But I fear my friends, romanticizing books and reading, lack clarity of vision.

Instead, I suspect, video and digital technology will drive us first into a post-literate world, where no one will need to read.

Then as digital technology is miniaturized and hand-held devices evolve into implants, we will enter the post-human era. Our grandchildren will be cyborgs, as much robots as people. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the end of the world as I want to know it.

In the meantime, though, the ubiquity of video has more immediate if no less pernicious effects — at least to the extent it discourages children from reading.

For example, a new study by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine indicates that reading protects teens from depression.

Teens participating in the study who preferred to listen to music were more likey to have “a major depressive order.” Those who chose to spend their time reading were “far less likely to have such a diagnosis.”

How much less likely? Those adolescents who spent the most time listening to music were 8.5 times more likely to be depressed than those who spent the least time listening to music. By contrast, those who read the most were one-tenth as likely to be depressed as those who read the least.

I have no wise-ass theory on this one. As a teen back in the dawn of time, I read a lot, listened to a lot of music, and I was melancholy most of the time. No, wait: All of the time. However, I can clear up one question the study left researchers with:

Do depressed people listen to more music to escape, or does listening to a lot of music lead to depression, or both?

The answer: Neither. In my experience, I consciously chose to listen to music that sharpened my adolescent feelings of melancholy, loneliness and alienation. There was a distinct, perverse pleasure in having my depressive feelings verified and enhanced. Emotionally it was like picking a scab.

In any case, as the head of the study explained, the surprising results go beyond the limits of science or medicine.

“It also is important that reading was associated with less likelihood of depression,” said Dr. Brian Primack, assistant professor of medicine and pediatrics. “This is worth emphasizing because overall in the US., reading books is decreasing, while nearly all other forms of media use are increasing.”

10 Comments leave one →
  1. April 6, 2011 10:59 am

    I have read where playing computer games to much can actually cause depression. I do believe that reading a book , wanting to read a book, then finishing a book gives satisfaction. For me at least. I feel I know some thing more than I did before. I feel I have traveled where I did not leave my chair. Then of course being able to dream you can travel any where. After all I am the Mayor of another Planet.
    I would agree with your friend on the positive about needing to read. I do agree with you, that it is being over whelmed with electronic gadgets.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 6, 2011 1:02 pm

      We need story, but we do not necessarily need to read to get them. Alas.

  2. Kelly Caldwell permalink
    April 6, 2011 1:26 pm

    I think you refute your own argument when you compare TV to M&Ms. Even the most ardent chocoholic needs protein. And if, like me, you’ve ever binged on TV (which, by the way, I occasionally love to do), the effect is not unlike binging on M&Ms — slightly nauseated and still craving something more substantive.

    Will books have competition from TV? Of course. But that doesn’t necessarily mean authors cannot/will not rise to the challenge.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 6, 2011 4:31 pm

      It’s not authors I worry about. It’s readers.

  3. April 6, 2011 8:47 pm

    Cursive writing is also on the way out. No need for it, use your keyboard. It’s the way of the world, Chauncey. Reading saved my sanity when I was a depressed teen rebel with a big fat cause. I thrived on reading books (stories, novels) and writing, but those quaint skills have obviously had their day. One more generation and phifft! I’m glad I won’t be part of it.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 7, 2011 10:15 am

      I’m with you, Duff. As I’ve written elsewhere, I used to count up the years until the turn of the century, when I thought we’d all be driving rocket ships and talking with our minds, dismayed to find I’d be the ancient age of 45. I wished to be born 30 years later, so I could participate in the sci-fi utopia I was certain awaited humanity in the 21st century. Now that I see the shape of things to come (at an age to rival Methuselah), I wish fervently I had been born 30 years earlier.

  4. April 6, 2011 9:25 pm

    There will always be readers so long as there is content that is difficult to put in video form. You can do a documentary on Ben Franklin, but you can’t read his words as written in his diary. Unfortunately, the number of readers who seek out what is unique printed content will continue to decrease with fiction taking the biggest hit. Here’s the bright side: people who actually still read will be considered “special.”

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 7, 2011 10:16 am

      Edmund White, speaking at the Key West Literary Seminar two or three years ago, said that novelists will become like poets — professional hobbyists writing for a very small audience.

  5. Candice Simmons permalink
    April 7, 2011 9:12 am

    Reading your blog depresses me….

    No more books. I knew there was a reason I never had children…

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 7, 2011 10:18 am

      Cheer up. You won’t live to see it. Read to your heart’s content, and savor each book that passes through your hands. As the Good Book says, Sufficient to the day are the evils (and pleasures, if I may be so bold) thereof.

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