The State of Youth Summer Reading

Posted by Amy Henry on Wed, Jul 06, 2011 @ 10:16 AM

For many youth, summer is synonymous with swimming, summer camp and slacking off. But summer has also traditionally been a time when kids lounge around with a good book.

Many may ask, does this generation still care about reading?Youth Summer Reading

While youth may be more likely to fulfill their daily word count on a screen, today’s kids, tweens and teens acknowledge that reading matters. Not all kids have been bitten by the bookworm, but many still revel in getting the latest edition of their favorite series, and some of the most recent pop culture icons of the last decade have come, first, from books that the 6-18 set learned to love. Harry Potter and Twilight’s latest movie installments may have temporarily taken youth’s focus off of these properties’ pages, but there’s no questions that youth have made these tomes their generation’s own.

So what’s the state of summer reading right now?

First, we know that storefronts (virtual and actual) have replaced the local library in many communities when it comes to curating the tastes of summer readers. Moms and dads are as likely, if not more, to look to for ideas on what the young readers (enthusiastic and reluctant alike) might absorb on the beach or in the late summer light of their bedrooms this season. Book clubs have become commercial, with the reward of reading a set number yielding a free book at Barnes and Noble – not the potential to win a trophy for reading the most books in your town, or more modestly, a sticker and the approving smile of your librarian for meeting a literary quota.

Second, we know that more and more youth have hefty homework assignments over the summer. Teens take home Spanish primers, history assignments and math packets, along with reading lists that require reports and other forms of comprehension proof. Younger and younger, youth find that their summer selections are not their own, and teachers’ picks might not provide youth with the energizing effects they desire.


Finally, we know that more and more youth are taking hold of Kindles over crinkled pages, and Nooks over traditional novels. But it’s unlikely that paper will fade away for a while. The numbers are worth considering, but they’re still small. And with more youth titles being made available as downloads, we expect that more adults will buy these digital books to promote a love of reading in their homes.

It might be easy to assume that reading today is more commercial, obligatory and digitally disconnected from the past. And it might lead us to ask, is that such a bad thing? We can wax on poetic about the way summer reading used to look, but reading today looks like many other aspects of youth’s lives…It’s on demand. It’s an act of leisure that has been loaded with educational expectations (remember when TV was just entertainment?). And it’s in formats that are native to this cohort of kids, tweens and teens. We can continue to look for signs from the past that our kids and the kids in our lives are learning to love books, but to truly give them the credit they deserve, we may need to look (and listen) a bit differently than in the past.

Tags: research, book, Youth, school

Youth Summer Camp: Wilderness Escape or Technology to Take?

Posted by Amy Henry on Wed, Jun 15, 2011 @ 11:21 AM

While school remains in session across most of the country, the days of lessening homework, field days, class trips and after-school dips in the pool have begun. Summer’s promise of freedom and the anticipation of new adventures can put a twinkle in the eye of even the most jaded kids, tweens and teens.

For today’s youth, much has changed about the months between the school year’s end and the next year’s beginning. Nearly 4% of students in the Youth Summer CampU.S. attend school year-round.  Three weeks on, one week off throughout the year means that the long summer stretch isn’t quite so unencumbered by classes and schedules. For households with two working parents (a majority of those that include children under 18 years old), summer vacation necessitates a scramble for back-up childcare, and sometimes, for creating a schedule that keep kids, tweens and teens occupied without eliminating all their control over those traditionally “self-governed” summer days. And for emerging athletes, summer is a time for training and preparing – for getting a leg-up on the competition – as much as it’s about taking time off.

But one tradition continues to define the summer months of many youth in the U.S. According to the American Camp Association, more than 12,000 day and resident camps exist in the U.S., accommodating the needs of more than 11 million children and adults. An additional 1.2 million adults relive their childhood memories as camp staff and counselors. The group estimates that the number of camps in this country has increased 90% across the past 20 years.

Camp has always represented a space where youth escape from their everyday lives, and feed their biophilia (their natural affinity for the outdoors). Growing up in a world where one is constantly connected, time to put down the mouse, allow the apps to take a break and turn off the 3D TV in your living room might seem like a prescription for happiness. But camps are also a place where kids, tweens and teens take charge. They’re not merely fed an alternative set of values (e.g., to take time out versus to plug in), but they engage in active negotiation of what a world of their own might be. According to Leslie Paris, author of Children’s Nature: The Rise of the American Summer Camp, the very first group of youth exposed to film pushed to bring their new favorite form of entertainment into the “wilderness.” We would hardly balk at the inclusion of movie night in a residential camp’s weekly agenda, but how about dedicated social networking time? What about cabins equipped with wireless? Can these new forms of technology co-exist with canoeing, hiking and cooking up a few s’mores?

Camps, in some ways, represent the ultimate testing ground between adult desires for youth and youth’s wants and needs for themselves. Perhaps the bigger question is should camp be a place where they are exposed to things we value, or a place to define what matters in a world ruled by them (the ultimate fantasy for not only kids, but also tweens and teens)? Camps often expose youth to experiences that they never knew they craved. Urban kids continue to represent a significant sub-set of residential and day campers in the U.S. According to a 2007 survey of camp directors, many feel that the need for a connection with nature has increased in the past 20 years due, in part, to decreased access to natural environments for most children in the U.S. but can we teach youth how to use technology responsibly, in moderation, and in ways that enhance their lives – not compete with its non-digital joys? Or are we, as adults, forcing youth to choose (technology or nature) when we should be encouraging them to integrate nature into their connected lives? Perhaps wrestling with these questions will help camps continue to remain relevant but will leave kids, tweens and teens something they can take back to the real world with them when the summer starts to fade.

Tags: Education, Youth, free time, school

Skins: Are We Afraid of Authenticity?

Posted by Amy Henry on Thu, Jan 27, 2011 @ 03:21 PM

Last week, MTV’s teen soap, Skins, garnered attention from bloggers and media outlets based on rumors that its producers may have violated child pornography laws by shooting its underage actors in inappropriate scenes. As we, like most everyone who has opined on this topic, haven’t seen the footage and don’t have expertise on this issue, we’re going to leave this issue alone…

But not surprisingly, the collective conversation on Skins quickly turned away from this legal issue towards a theme we’ve heard before: teen TV has gone too far. As I read and watched commentary, I couldn’t help but develop a sneaking suspicion that most of those who claimed that Skins had crossed the line hadn’t actually seen the show. Many of the most passionate blog comments came after the caveat, “I haven’t seen the show, but…” Seemingly under-informed commentators professed that Skins was “smut” (as one morning hostess noted), and that its producers should be “rounded up” (as one TV editorialist professed). The narrative surrounding Skins seemed to trump any conversation about the story of the show itself.skins logo

All of these critiques made me wonder, “will teens even like this show?” Our data shows that most teens have taste when it comes to TV. They get blamed for Jersey Shore, but more of them tune in to House. They watch Lost, but pass on The Bachelorette. They give Gossip Girl a chance, but they really go for Glee.

But after watching Skins, we think teens might continue to tune in. Here are a few things we heard about the show, and here’s what we saw:

  1. All they do is have sex! Skins shows a lot of kissing, and a little provocative dancing, but we’ve seen that before. And there is a lot of talking about sex - and it’s crass, raw and not so eloquent. It’s an adolescent version of fart jokes and potty humor. But it sounds pretty true to how teens talk about sex – more testing their knowledge than putting words into action.
  2. They make it seem like everyone is having sex and doing drugs…Actually, in episode one, the show’s suave star, Tony tries to persuade Stanley to lose his virginity before he turns 18. And – SPOILER ALERT – by the end of the episode, Stanley takes a pass. Stanley does buy drugs for a party but he’s hardly a seasoned pro. Far from being confident and cool, he’s terrified by the bizarre and decidedly unglamorous drug dealer who he meets (in the suburbs, no less). He’s so frazzled that he buys way more than he intended and leaves more shaken than self-satisfied.
  3. They’re acting as though all teens act like this. Actually, in this first episode, the show’s central characters explicitly differentiate themselves from the “rich” kids who don’t do drugs, and seem to live in a whole different world. Within their group, each character has a very different relationship to sex and drugs. And their appeal might be, in part, that they seem to be outsiders. Tony does have the chameleon-like ability to gain entrée into the prep school world, but he finds he doesn’t quite fit in when he shows up to a prep school party with his rag-tag group of pals.  
  4. These characters have no redeeming value. Yes, Skins is more about socializing than the SATs. But the characters are far from shallow or one-dimensional. They’re rebellious and cool, but also vulnerable and confused. And mostly, they seem to be seeking the kind of love and stability that the adults in their lives aren’t providing (parents and teachers are frequently shown as “on the verge” – fueled by out of control rage or neediness),  

Maybe the most subversive thing about Skins is that it feels real. We see the angst that we know teens experience. We see the moral dilemmas they wrestle with, and we witness how teens make decisions – sometimes the right ones and often the wrong ones. We see a world that doesn’t exactly mirror that of Skins’  teen viewers, but one that contains the elements that they can recognize and relate to (likely because the writers tapped into a poised panel of teen experts in the development of the show to make sure they got the language and the nuances just right). Real authenticity is sometimes harder to accept than reality TV.

Whether teens feel that Skins gets it right or not, it seems to us that this is the kind of TV that’s worth considering before dismissing. Adults might prefer shows that show teens a more aspirational view of their lives (one in which a song cures all ills and risks are easily avoided). But we think teens deserve entertainment that makes them think, reflect and even laugh at an approximation of reality on their own terms.

Tags: parents, Teens, gender, TV, culture, school, MTV, Skins

Bringing Bullying Back into Perspective

Posted by Amy Henry on Thu, Oct 21, 2010 @ 11:50 AM

With Rutgers student, Tyler Clementi’s suicide three weeks ago, the anxiety about bullying that has been bubbling up in the culture for quite some time broke the surface. While organizations ranging from the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, The Pacer Center and MTV have been on the case for a while, and the CDC has been releasing alarming – shocking even – statistics on bullying for years, the issue has risen to the top of our collective consciousness and has taken on the fervor of a national crisis.

Across venues ranging from academic conferences to client presentations to conversations with parents, we’ve often heard the question posed, “what’s wrong with today’s youth?” Indeed, a recent NY Times article featured the opinions of a variety of experts who mostly admitted that they weren’t speaking from data or from real evidence when they suggest that bullying has something to do with watching Beyonce and Jay-Z videos. Other experts quotes in the article blame Hannah Montana, citing this show and shows like it for positioning put-downs as poking fun. And countless articles and broadcasts before this one have demonized cell phones and social networks as the bully’s new bestie.Trevor Project

Reading these accounts, one might expect that most youth go to school in absolute fear. As a parent, taking this data at face value could be paraylizing – how could we send our kids to school knowing that many would be perpetrators or victims, and that violence (verbal, emotional or physical) is lurking at their lockers and hiding in the hallways.

But is bullying new? And is it as pervasive as it may seem?

Bullying has been around forever. Mean girls, physically aggressive boys and rumor-spreading kids, tweens and teens are nothing new. In my middle school years, “Slam Books” were the offline version of labeling or ostracizing your peers and take in an episode of Leave it To Beaver to know that a boy who was smaller than the rest and who had a funny name was likely to get some ribbing. So why has our attention to it changed? First, we know a lot more about bullying. We know that a wound – whether emotional or physical – takes a long time to heal. We also know that the outcome of even one unfortunate event can be devastating. No longer do we accept, as a society, that boys will be boys or that gossip is benign. And rightfully so, as adults, we’re more concerned about these timeless acts of exclusion than ever.

Second, throughout time, adults have tended to romanticize their own childhood and see the acts of today’s youth as more subversive, more harmful and more morally questionable than those of their own childhoods. How many times have we heard, “In my day, we didn’t occupy ourselves with so many video games.” “When I was growing up, we listened to “good” music – not what they’re listening to today.” This mindset can be quite dangerous, and as countless sociologists have pointed out, can bring us to a frenzy over the truths of today’s youth culture. We’re not debating that being able to bully in public, quickly, as in texting and social networking, have not raised the stakes of bullying. The rumor mill moves at cyber speed, and the pulpit for put downs is bigger. But this generation of youth did not invent bullying, they just practice it on their own terms.

And finally, what might be different are the victims. Our YouthBeat data shows that most youth (over 95% of kids, tweens and teens) leave bullying off the list of things they worry about. But bullying has always been confined to a few. And this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be paying attention…Rather than looking for ways to statistically prove that bullying affects all kids, let’s just acknowledge that it’s okay to pay attention to an issue that has significant effects on a statistically insignificant number of youth. If today’s extreme ostracizing has been focused on just a few gay youth, shouldn’t we still be concerned? And what is it about the culture at large that seems more tolerant and open to diversity, but continues to victimize youth who are in the minority?

So to put bullying back into perspective, we think that we need to stop pretending that it’s happening to everyone and acknowledge that we can all have compassion for, and speak out against, harmful acts that are affecting just a few. And this issue might rightfully become the cause of the cohort – but not because they made it worse, but simply because they know better than to accept it. 

Tags: parents, bullying, Youth, school, trevor project

Back to School Worries Focus on Books More than Bullying

Posted by Amy Henry on Tue, Aug 31, 2010 @ 02:27 PM

According to media reports from across the country, kids, tweens and teens’ frets focus on very different topics than in the past. According to youth themselves, homework still scares them the most.

Most experts agree that kids should get about ten minutes worth of homework for each grade they’re in…So that means tweens shouldn’t hit the one-hour mark until they land in 6th grade. But parents and many teachers will admit that kids are often overburdened with post-school studying well before they’re ready.Kids Tweens and Teens Back to School

Kids, tweens and teens are more conscious than ever of the power to perform in the classroom while maintaining some semblance of a childhood (and don’t forget about those pesky colleges who want students to foster extracurricular interests in addition to attending to their grades). In a recent survey we conducted among kids, tweens and teens, homework (54 percent) and having less free time (34 percent) are the concerns that weigh heaviest on their minds. And 39% of high schoolers site increasing academic pressures as something they fear going into the new year.

But what are they most looking forward to? Over 80 percent of older tweens and teens (ages 11 to 13 and 14 to 17, respectively) are most looking forward to a “fresh start” – much more so than kids (ages 6-10) at 39 percent.

And this makes sense. Getting a chance to start the year anew, with a clean slate, not only gives tweens and teens a chance to “try again,” but also gives them a chance to reinvent themselves – a new style, a new group of friends and a new take on their own identities. This desire to begin the school year fresh is a timeless need that we continue to see reflected in these results.

Despite media coverage that might imply that all youth are consumed with fear at school, serious school violence (shootings, for example) does not concern the vast majority of them – 95 percent of all kids, tweens and teens. However, African American youth are more concerned about this issue than their Caucasian and Hispanic counterparts, with 15 percent saying they were concerned about school violence, compared with just 8 percent of Caucasian youth and 5 percent of Hispanic youth.

Tags: kids, bullying, homework, Youth, Teens, tweens, school

Cyberbullying: Too Much Emphasis on the Cyber?

Posted by Amy Henry on Mon, Jun 28, 2010 @ 11:56 AM

In this morning’s New York Times, Jan Hoffman pens a thoughtful piece on Cyberbullying- an issue we’ve been hearing about on a daily basis since it first began hitting our collective radars right around 2003. With legislation pending in numerous states (see a paper by Nancy Willard of the Center for Safe and Responsible Use of the Internet on the legal ins and outs of this issue), we’ve seen an uptick of outrage and an increase in the interest of this topic.

In the article, Hoffman reveals the quandary schools find themselves in when faced with allegations of cyberbullying – particularly when it occurs off campus, and outside of school hours. And we know that these issues are complex to say the least. Tweens are still learning how to navigate the amoeba-like groups that seem to form, swarm and break up as quickly as a tweet...Throw in the ability and the opportunity to broadcast your every thought – positive or negative – to your whole group and beyond; it’s not surprising that tweens stumble as often as they succeed. Cyberbullying

But we were most struck by one pervasive attitude about cyberbullying that seems to seep through in the article, but isn’t addressed explicitly. The article appears on the NYTimes website under the sub-head, “Poisoned Web” (leading one to believe that this might be a section, alongside “Arts” and “Real Estate”). In her article, she exposes an email (that had already received attention from across the country) from a NJ middle school principle that read, “There is absolutely NO reason for any middle school student to be part of a social networking site.” And haven’t we all heard “those kids today and their Internet” from even the most progressive of our friends and relatives? In fact, I caught myself talking about teen relationships inappropriately publicized on Facebook just this past weekend…

It’s not that we deny the influence that social networking, texting and even AIM have on the way middle schoolers act. But instead of looking to technology as the cause of tween torment, and getting rid of it or forbidding it as the solution, maybe we need to say “thanks” to Facebook and Twitter for getting an evergreen issue on our radars once again. Middle school is hard. Ask any tween. Or rather, watch them and listen to the way they talk about their lives have changed. We place high expectations on them and sometimes forget to give them the scaffolding they need when it comes to social skills. The speed with which damage occurs is the change – but tweens excluding others, gossiping, name-calling, lying and manipulating? Not new. These things are likely to stand the test of time – and will remain as hurdles to growing up with a sense of self-efficacy intact – as long as we have tweens and middle schools.

But how do we protect our tweens from the emotional and sometimes, physical effects of bullying? We may not have the answer, but we do know that any solution must take into account the way that tweens really interact and truly talk. This means seeking to understand why they crave Facebook, Twitter, and inevitably, the next version of each of those communities, versus dismissing them as the bullies themselves.

(photo from

Tags: kids, parents, cyberbullying, MySpace, Youth, tweens, school, Facebook