The emergence of social media has affected, among other things, the idea of free time. Before, the absence of responsibilities such as schoolwork or household chores would give us the opportunity to enjoy activities like playing the guitar, sketching, baking, or painting. However, social media has given us access to endless amounts of videos, posts, memes, and other online interactions to effortlessly immerse ourselves in instead.
In my case, social media prevented me from devoting more time to reading books—a hobby and passion of mine ever since I got my first book 13 years ago. My free time that used to be spent in between a paperback’s covers and following the adventures of a boy with a lightning-shaped scar or seeing the heroics of the son of a Sea God was replaced by a phone screen as I passively read through status updates, Tweets, comments, or watched the occasional random video.
“Though it is good that social media enables us to do things simultaneously, such as reading through a post while private messaging a friend, certain situations call for us to be in the present. Reading and its linear process offered a nice break from the content-switching often done with social media.”
Though I do not think it is bad to use these platforms and enjoy your interests, I disliked having my mind consumed by social media almost 24/7. I would be constantly bombarded with notifications, messages, and recommendations, making it harder to concentrate on a given task. Even when I was eating a meal and my phone was in another room, I could not focus on the food because my mind was thinking about this post I saw a few minutes ago on Facebook.
With all these distractions, I thought of returning to another form of content to spend my free time. In December 2019, ten years after my first paperback, I made an unofficial New Year’s resolution: I decided to cut back on social media and return to reading books.
After a couple of pages and a few uninstalled social media apps, I finished reading seven novels four months into 2020. Distancing myself from social media enabled me to rekindle the fleeting passion from my childhood. Not only did I feel like my 11-year-old self, who was still trying to read a book despite a brownout, but after finishing my seventh novel, I realized the greater value of reading books amid this golden age of digital content.
Though it is good that social media enables us to do things simultaneously, such as reading through a post while private messaging a friend, certain situations call for us to be in the present. Reading and its linear process offered a nice break from the content-switching often done with social media.
When I reimmersed myself in books, this content-switching habit kept intruding on my train of thought, and it was challenging to read through an entire page, let alone a paragraph. Our digital lifestyles over the decade have reduced the average attention span of a human from twelve seconds to just eight seconds based on a Microsoft survey; a goldfish with its nine-second attention span could hold a thought longer than the modern-day Juan. As I ponder on this, I was shamefully reminded of how often I stopped writing this piece mid-sentence and impulsively jumped on the Reddit tab.
I did eventually overcome this reading hurdle as reading itself improves concentration because it trains and demands the mind to drown out mental intrusions to focus on the content at hand. Each book was easier to digest than the last because I could get lost in the pages. This less-fidgety attention span also proved helpful come night time.
Falling asleep the moment I lie down was difficult because my mind would still be racing with thoughts. Other factors such as academics also prevented me from properly establishing a consistent bedtime routine. This is why I, and even others, resorted to social media to bridge the gap between lying down and sleeping. However, it just results in this frustrating state where the eyes are tired from the screen but the mind is still processing all these thoughts that social media fuels even more. Fortunately, reading books offered me a way to alleviate these concerns and achieve our sleepless generation’s long-sought consistent body clock.
In a study by the University of Sussex, reading worked best at reducing stress among the participants compared to other methods. Through reading, it helps a person be more relaxed and calmer. In my experience, I have noticed how my sleep schedule and sleep quality drastically improved as I continued to read more books. This is in stark contrast to some of my friends who have shared their frustrations with their body clocks. Of course, I know that other factors also play a role in one’s sleep schedule such as work and responsibilities but it is still good to know that there is a way to address our generation’s sleep depravity.
Going further on the benefits of reading books, in this era where information is peeking from every digital corner, the distinction between fact and fiction can become blurry. But with reading helping us improve our comprehension, sorting through the overwhelming content can be easier.
“In school, reading a book is often presented as an academic activity where we need to remember dates, names, or events. We are taught to extract something from the text to create an analysis or to answer a question. While there is merit to them and they are important to do, at the heart of reading is the experience.”
A study from Emory University saw brain scans of students have an increase in the brain areas involved in receptive language days after reading the study’s selected book. Furthermore, as an active form of entertainment, reading books exposes you to arguments and perceptions about the world which gives new lenses to view things. These help you pull from different things you’ve read about and relate them with the information and the context you have now and decide whether it’s to be trusted or questioned.
Above all of this though, the best part of reading books is the immersion factor. I think what our education system has not been able to deliver is the empathy-driven ride of reading. In school, reading a book is often presented as an academic activity where we need to remember dates, names, or events. We are taught to extract something from the text to create an analysis or to answer a question. While there is merit to them and they are important to do, at the heart of reading is the experience. It’s about getting lost in the pages and empathizing with the characters whether in sorrow or happiness.
During my 2020 reading spree, I saw the world from multiple perspectives. I saw it as a Northern Lord solving a royal mystery, as an Indian boy stranded on a boat with a Tiger, as an Afghan man facing the demons of his past and so much more. I was able to understand and feel their struggles and triumphs. Not only was it an eye-opener for situations completely different from my own, but it taught me lessons and made me ponder all while looking at words on a paper. It’s an experience I rarely get from scrolling through Facebook.
My sentiments are not a slight against social media and its users. Social media is not inherently bad as it can actually help us dive deeper into interests and is a convenient tool for communication, especially during a pandemic. In fact, I missed claiming my senior high diploma because I failed to answer a Google form when I uninstalled the Messenger app.
Nor am I also saying that a person who reads books is automatically better than someone who doesn’t. Rather, nothing will be lost if we devote even five minutes of our time to reading a book, and in those five minutes, you’ll gain back more things than the time you spent. It’s why I always perk up whenever a friend says they want to try to read or are asking for a book recommendation. It’s something I believe everyone should be doing.
So the next time you have some free time and you get the urge to pick up your phone to scroll through social media, try picking up a book and read instead. It won’t be as easy as going through your feed and there will be that incessant tug of taking your eyes off the page to reach for your phone, but the effort will be worth doing because beyond those words and pages, is a soul-sustaining world far more real that can not be replaced by any digital space.