Books offer a healing retreat for youngsters

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Research supports the idea that reading books builds empathy. [Courtesy]

Parents at a loss to find activities for their children during Covid lockdowns can encourage them to escape into a book. New research shows how reading books can help young people escape from their sources of stress, find role models in characters and develop empathy.

Recent media reports have highlighted a concerning rise in severe emotional distress in young people. Isolation and disruption of learning in lockdown have increased their anxiety. 

A lot has been written about the role of regular reading in building literacy skills. Now, my findings from a BUPA Foundation-funded research project on school libraries and well-being provide insight into how books and reading can help young people deal with the well-being challenges of the pandemic.

The findings suggest books can not only be a great escape during this challenging time, but also offer further well-being benefits.

Escaping from a world of stress

We know that adults who are avid readers enjoy being able to escape into their books. Reading for pleasure can reduce psychological distress and has been related to mental well-being.

Reading-based interventions have been used successfully to support children who have experienced trauma. In a recent study, around 60 per cent of young people agreed reading during lockdown helped them to feel better.

My research project confirms young people can use books and reading to escape the pressures of their lives. As one student said:

“If you don’t know what to do, or if you’re sad, or if you’re angry, or whatever the case is, you can just read, and it feels like you’re just escaping the world. And you’re going into the world of the book, and you’re just there.”

If you enjoy reading, there’s a good chance you have favourite characters who hold a place in your heart. The project found young people can find role models in books to look up to and emulate, which can help to build their resilience.

A student described her experience reading the autobiography of young Pakistani activist and Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai: “I thought it was incredible how no matter what happened to her, even after her horrific injury, she just came back and kept fighting for what she believed in.”

Other research has linked connecting with characters to mental health recovery, partly due to its power to instil hope in the reader. Building relationships with characters in books can also be used as “self-soothing” to decrease anxiety.

Young people also celebrate their affection for book characters in social networking spaces such as TikTok, where they share their enjoyment of the book journey with favourite characters.

Developing empathy through reading

Research supports the idea that reading books builds empathy. Reading fiction can improve social cognition, which helps us to connect with others across our lives. My previous work with adult readers found some people read for the pleasure they get from developing insight into other perspectives, to “see the world through other people’s eyes”.

If parents are not sure what books will best suit their child’s often ever-changing interests and needs, they can get in touch with the teacher librarians at school. Even during lockdown, they are usually only an email or a phone call away.

The library managers in the project played an important role in connecting students with books that could lead to enjoyable and positive reading experiences.

 -Margaret Kristin Merga is Honorary Adjunct, University of Newcastle and Senior Lecturer in Education, Edith Cowan University.

This article was first published by The Conversation.

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