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Children who start reading for pleasure early had better academics, mental health as teens: study

By Michael Lee, Writer

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    Toronto, Ontario (CTV Network) — Researchers say children who start reading for pleasure early in life could end up with better test scores and mental health outcomes as teenagers.

A study published on June 28 in the journal Psychological Medicine found a strong link between reading an optimal amount of 12 hours a week and improved performance on cognitive tests later in adolescence.

The study, conducted by researchers at the universities of Cambridge and Warwick in the United Kingdom, as well as Fudan University in Shanghai, China, involved data from more than 10,000 young adolescents in the United States.

They say the study shows for the first time the “important relationships” between reading for pleasure early and cognitive development and mental well-being.

“Reading isn’t just a pleasurable experience — it’s widely accepted that it inspires thinking and creativity, increases empathy and reduces stress,” Barbara Sahakian, a professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, said in a news release.

“But on top of this, we found significant evidence that it’s linked to important developmental factors in children, improving their cognition, mental health and brain structure, which are cornerstones for future learning and well-being.”

Jianfeng Feng, a professor at Fudan University and the University of Warwick, said parents are encouraged “to do their best to awaken the joy of reading in their children at an early age.”

“Done right, this will not only give them pleasure and enjoyment, but will also help their development and encourage long-term reading habits, which may also prove beneficial into adult life,” Feng said.

METHODS The researchers used data from 10,243 participants from the Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development study, described as the largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the U.S.

Forty-eight per cent of the participants had little experience reading for pleasure, the researchers said, or did not start until later in childhood, while the other half spent between three and 10 years reading for pleasure.

About 47.5 per cent of the participants were female and the rest were male. None had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder or schizophrenia, while 9.1 per cent met the criteria for an ADHD diagnosis.

Using clinical interviews, cognitive tests, mental and behavioural assessments, and brain scans, the researchers compared those who started reading between two and nine years of age to those who started later or not at all.

The team says it also controlled for factors such as socio-economic status.

EARLY READING CONNECTED TO BETTER SCHOOL PERFORMANCE, FEWER BEHAVIOURAL PROBLEMS The results showed a positive link between reading for pleasure early in life and test scores in verbal learning, memory and speech development, and school performance as adolescents.

The same children showed fewer signs of stress and depression, improved attention, fewer behavioural problems, less screen time and longer sleep, the study says. The findings appeared to be consistent for both males and females.

Brain scans also showed that adolescents who started reading early had “moderately” larger brain area and volume, including in regions important for cognitive function.

The researchers found no additional benefits for participants who read for pleasure beyond 12 hours per week, which could be due to more time spent sedentary and less time playing sports or engaging in social activities, the study says.

“Furthermore, taking into account of the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns had on young children’s cognitive development, RfP (reading for pleasure)-related activities may help mitigate the negative effects of the pandemic and lockdowns on their emotion, cognition and education,” the researchers write.

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