THE computer game is the electronic counsellor for children too stressedto concentrate on books according to research. The book is not dead, but even keen readers need more help to keep it alive.
A University of Amsterdam study suggests that a generation of readers has never been lost in a book, that children are more easily distracted from reading than 10 years ago and that the computer is their first refuge when they feel lonely or have a problem.
"If you have a nightmare, you go use the computer," said one 11-year-old boy. "When I have problems about something, I sort out pictures on the computer," said another.
The researchers compared the reading habits of primary and secondary pupils with those of adult book lovers in 1988, when computer games were almost unknown in the Netherlands. The attention gap between the children and the adults - the difference in the two groups' abilities to become so absorbed in reading that they lost track of time - was 5 per cent. In the Netherlands, 10 years and 1.5 million PlayStations later, it was 17 per cent.
But the study director, Saskia Telleyen, says: "First it was the gramophone, then films - people said 'they'll never read a book again', and it passed."
However, the results mean that teachers cannot assume that children who have been taught to read fluently have also learnt to enjoy it: "We have to teach them, step-by-step, how to use their imagination to evoke the world of a story, to use their emotional understanding to bring to life the situations and characters. We have to show them the way to involvement and absorption."
The group that had most trouble concentrating on a book were pupils in the upper half of secondary school beset by homework and subject and career choices.
According to delegates at the Children's Literature at the end of the century conference in Calgary, Canada, where the research was presented, the list of worries for the millennium generation is ever-expanding. One session looked at fiction which attempts "to put the chaos and anxieties of our time into perspective".
Lost in a book or absorbed by computer games: some results from an empirical observation is published by Saskia Tellegen and Jolanda Frankhuisen, department of communication science, University of Alberta, Oude Hoogstraat 24, IOIZCE Amsterdam, Netherlands.