Yes, young people are still reading. But differently!


Since the 1990s, there have been many questions about the reading practices of young people , deploring that they turn less to this hobby than previous generations. It is at the entrance to college that a dropout would occur: the declared number of books read drops from the age of 11.

Yet the picture for children’s publishing is far from bleak: in 2020, sales value increased by 9.9% and 16% in 2021, and purchases of digital books for children increased by 44 % in 2020, during confinement. The biggest increase concerns children’s literature , but teenagers were also offered titles that better correspond to their universe, largely transmedia .

To better understand how these a priori contradictory tendencies can cohabit, perhaps we need to review our traditional representations. What if young people, rather than reading less, actually read differently? Let’s take a closer look at these new uses .

3h14 of reading per day

If books are often contrasted with screens, the latest surveys consider the e-book as a book in its own right, which makes it possible to better assess the number of books read. However, taking this into account does not allow us to consider all the literary activities of adolescents, which can also take place on screen. Surfing the Internet can also rhyme with buying books and consulting reading tips.

But we continue to split the two spaces. The Ipsos survey on young French people and reading thus indicates that 7-19 year olds read 13 minutes more than in 2016, but that they spend less time reading (3h14 per day on average) than on screens (3h50 per day on average). As e-books are not widespread (less than 10% of publishers’ total sales), it is not envisaged that screen time can also be integrated into reading time.

However, if the profound change that has affected the world of books was initiated by the ebook, another turning point has begun with social networks and in the form of reading and writing platforms. On the network side, Instagram and TikTok have taken over from YouTube videos, drowning out reading tips in the flow of posts, in such a way that it is extremely difficult to quantify the time spent watching these reading tips.

Regarding platforms, such as Wattpad and Webtoon for the most famous, they are often omitted by young people themselves when asked how much time they spend reading, and are not counted in book sales even digital, while they are centered on the creation and sharing of stories.

This platformization of the world of books is part of the new cultural ecosystem which strives to attract teenagers by focusing on free access, personalization of content and a plethoric offer, all this ensuring that they find texts that they like and within their financial means. This free hyperchoice is also attractive because it is practiced on touch screens  : the digital gesture provokes intimacy with the story that one adapts to oneself, in its layout and layout, in the choices made among those of the algorithm, as an extension of itself.

Sick-lit, New Romance, Fantasy… Genres popular with young people

It should not be thought that this is only a vast enterprise of seduction: these platforms are transforming practices and worrying the book industry. Indeed, the classic editorial model is based on the legitimacy granted to authors and texts by a selection made by the publishers who thus guarantee a literary quality to the published texts. The platforms, they correspond to a data economy: free is based on the resale of user data and leaves aside the criterion of recognition of literary quality. Thus, the success of a text posted online depends on the number of people who read it.

Does privileging these reading channels amount to ignoring quality and subscribing to a certain frivolity? In reality, what inspires young people is the search for texts that appeal to them and that more echo their vision of the world . This question has always arisen, and corresponds to the issues raised by popular literature .

The ideal found on reading platforms is thus to put the reader at the center of the process: he chooses the texts he likes from millions of stories offered (more than 100 million on Wattpad, all languages ​​combined), classified according to categories which evolve over the published texts and which are therefore not set in stone.

This is how new categories are born, such as Young Adult literature, divided into categories and subcategories that establish a classification that is not prescriptive, but with the aim of offering readers texts likely to interest them. Laurent Bazin in his study La Littérature Young Adult distinguishes two main genres themselves divided into subgenres:

  • Fantasy , first of all, which continues this literary and editorial genre by breaking it down into medieval, historical, mythical, urban, oriental, steampunk and dystopia fantasy ;
  • The romance, which renews the old sentimental novel under the influence of the Anglo-Saxon “romance”, which is declined in “chick-lit” (genre to which novels like Bridget Jones belong ), “bit-lit” (in the wake of the success of Twilight ), new romance and new adult .

The categories continue to be invented, as soon as an unclassifiable text is posted, this is how the “sick-lit” and the “feel-good books” were born.

Readers and authors at the same time

This space of freedom of choice is accompanied by a writing space that everyone can seize, because one entrusts one’s text to the community and not to a selective editorial system. This way of working, putting aside social differences and valuing commitment, is certainly what attracts young people the most: not only are they used to it, but they benefit from it as readers, authors, critics and proofreaders all at the same time.

Since 2012, publishing houses have of course tried to follow these trends and publish texts posted on platforms, such as those of Nine Gorman , creating new collections for teenagers and young adults. Fanfiction is a genre now taken seriously. Publishing houses develop bookstagrams and booktoks and thus invest in digital places for young people. Literary influencers are also very listened to.

Where are the young people, then, with regard to reading and literature? Where you least expect them. In the New World, that of the third millennium. Society is torn between the desire to bring them back to the old system, based on books, preferably paper, and the need to follow them into these new spaces of co-writing. However, beyond societal issues, this free and shared culture also raises legal and financial issues around copyright .

Author Bio: Carine Roucan is Doctor in French language and literature, Qualified for the function of MCF section 9, Member of GRIC UR4314. Teacher in literature, expression and publishing at the University of Le Havre Normandy