No, Twitter won’t ‘leave young illiterate’

By Oliver Smith 21 August 2017
Image: Getty/David Levenson / Contributor.

In fact, the reverse is true.

Booker prize-winning novelist Howard Jacobson has warned children will be illiterate within a generation, because of Twitter.

“We will have children who can’t read, who don’t want to read,” he told The Times.

“I can’t read any more as much as I used to. My concentration has been shot by this bloody screen. I can’t do it now — I want space, I want white pages, light behind the page.”

His more nuanced view is right that Twitter is void of “exploration, inquiry, irony” and composed “almost exclusively of statement” which lacks the subtlety of “feeling something out”.

But on the whole he’s entirely mistaken.

Wither Twitter

Firstly Jacobson has entirely misjudged just how prevalent Twitter is in people’s lives, especially children.

Once Upon A Time… Twitter was heralded as the world’s soapbox, the place where future generations would converse and discuss the goings on in the world.

That hasn’t transpired. Instead Twitter is used almost exclusively by the media-entertainment-political class, rather than by ‘ordinary people’ as its stagnant user base shows.

At the same time, the children that Jacobson is so concerned about are living on WhatsApp, Instagram and Snapchat – Twitter barely registers because none of their friends use it.

Secondly, The Times links his Twitter assertion with falling literacy by the way of a Scottish survey that showed a steep fall in writing standards among 13-year-olds over the past five years – despite The Times itself linking these findings with the political failings, rather than social media, earlier this year.

Furthermore, recent research of teenagers in Russia found that the language used by teens on social media is actually growing more complex and sophisticated over time.

Void of reason

There are valid reasons why literacy standards are falling, both in the UK and US, but blaming social media (especially Twitter) is not the answer.

Instead, because of technology and an abundance of screens, teens and children are today reading and writing more, and at a younger age, than ever before in history.

They may not be writing the kind of prose that a Booker prize-winning novelist would appreciate (or even understand), but I can promise you they are keen wordsmiths.

It’s up to our schooling system to craft and shape that passion for communication and this, I fear, may be what’s void of “exploration, inquiry, [and] irony”.