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Literature online: Research into reading habits almost in real time

YOUNG people make intensive use of digital networks to read, write and comment on literary texts.

But their reading behavior varies considerably depending on whether the title is from the world of popular or classic literature, as revealed by a new study that takes the reading platform Wattpad as an example.

This computer-aided analysis under the direction of the University of Basel was published in the journal PLOS ONE. Time and time again, people complain that young people no longer read enough -- with the habit of deeper reading, in particular, becoming lost.

But this overlooks the fact that young people not only read printed books, but also use several different forms of media to read and write literature. Many teenagers turn to networks such as Goodreads, BücherTreff and LovelyBooks in order to read literature, discuss it with other readers and even write their own literature. This is termed "social reading."

The phenomenal scale of "social reading" is clear from the Wattpad platform, on which more than 80 million predominantly young people worldwide exchange some 100,000 stories in more than 50 languages every day. Fanfiction, in which fans write continuations of famous stories such as Harry Potter, is a particularly popular genre.

Computer-aided analysis

For the first time, a team of researchers from Switzerland and Italy have researched the use of the digital reading platform Wattpad in greater detail. Their research incorporated computer-aided techniques, such as network analysis and sentiment analysis, in order to detect patterns in reading behavior within the millions of datasets.

Using statistical techniques, the researchers analyzed which books young people around the world read and comment on, and also write themselves on platforms such as Wattpad. The analysis looked at reading preferences, the emotionality and intensity of comments made about books, the networking between young readers and the potential educational impact.

Passionate reading

This revealed how intensively young people read not only youth literature - "teen fiction" - but also classic literature by, for example, Jane Austen or Hermann Hesse, commenting on individual sentences up to several hundred times and using the works as a model for stories of their own.

It is also striking to see that the young readers are highly emotionally involved in this process. Nevertheless, there are clear differences depending on whether a text is classified as popular literature or belongs to the classical literary canon.

For example, teen fiction is read and commented on much more frequently on Wattpad than classic works. The researchers also observed that readers often stop reading classic works after the first few chapters, whereas teen fiction manages to captivate readers over longer sections of the plot.

Another aspect that varied by genre was the degree of interchange between users: readers of teen fiction formed networks with strong social bonds, with frequent interaction. Among readers of the classics, on the other hand, the researchers identified a more cognitively oriented style of interaction, in which users helped one another to understand and interpret the works.

A new understanding of culture

"For the first time, we're able to analyse reading behavior almost in real time," says study leader Professor Gerhard Lauer, from the Digital Humanities Lab at the University of Basel. "Social media is ushering in a revolution in our understanding of culture. Platforms such as Wattpad, Spotify and Netflix enable culture to be understood in a density and accuracy that goes way beyond previous approaches in the humanities and social sciences."

In another development, in the workplace, standing desks and walking meetings are addressing the health dangers of sitting too long each day, but for universities, the natural question is how to make such adjustments for classrooms.

The question appealed to emerita dance professor Angelia Leung from the UCLA Department of World Arts & Cultures/Dance. Sitting too long was never an issue for Leung's students. But for most college students, desk time is more common than dance time.

In an unusual collaboration between the arts and sciences, Leung partnered with Burt Cowgill, an assistant adjunct professor with the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, to find ways to help students stand up. The team's research, published in the Journal of American College Health on February 6, hit upon solutions that students and faculty can agree on.

However, all the solutions, the researchers said, would work best if joined with an effort to raise awareness about the health risks of extended sitting, aimed at shifting cultural expectations and norms about classroom etiquette.

Studies have linked prolonged sitting with health concerns such as heart disease, cancer, depression, diabetes and obesity. Research shows that breaking up long periods of sitting with movement at least once an hour reduces those risks, while regular exercise at other times of day does not.

Despite those risks, the UCLA research found that more than half of students interviewed considered it socially unacceptable to stand up and stretch in the middle of class, and nearly two-thirds felt the same about doing so during smaller discussion sections.

"A cultural change has to take place - that it's OK to take a stretch break, to stand up during a lecture, to fidget when needed - it's 'good' for health's sake," Leung said. "My students have an advantage because dance classes naturally involve movement, but we can extend these benefits to any class on campus with something as simple as short stretching breaks - no dancing required."

Some of the recommendations are simple: Take hourly breaks to stand and stretch during long classes; include more small-group activities that require moving to switch desks; and create more open classrooms with space to walk without squeezing past fellow students and room to install standing desk areas.

To overcome social stigma, the researchers emphasised that professors and instructors will have to take the lead in offering group breaks at specific times rather than suggesting students can get up any time they wish.

They also recommended that professors encourage students to get up and move during their breaks; and suggested that university administrators establish policies that call for building more open classrooms and adding features such as adjustable desks.

The research was funded by the Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center at UCLA, a campuswide effort to make the healthy choice the easy choice, and to promote wellness through education and research. For the study, moderators conducted eight focusgroup interviews and guided discussions with 66 UCLA students, roughly half undergraduates and half graduate students.

The researchers also interviewed eight faculty members. The researchers looked at how much students and faculty knew about the health risks of sitting, investigated whether the participants could avoid prolonged sitting in class, and gathered ideas for feasible solutions.

"We need to change the way we teach so that we can offer more standing breaks, create opportunities for inclass movement, and even change the built environment so that there's more room for moving around," Cowgill said.

But even though the study found that students and faculty were broadly supportive of making changes, Cowgill said he doubts people will, ahem, stand up against the status quo if there isn't also an effort to raise awareness about the health risks.

Social norms and the physical classroom environment are barriers, but awareness is the biggest obstacle. Cowgill said he was surprised to learn that many of the participants were not aware of the health problems that prolonged sitting can cause, even for people who are otherwise active.

"Many people thought they would be fine if they also squeezed in a 30-minute jog, and that's just not what research shows us." The researchers expect the study will shed light on misconceptions about the health risks of extended sitting, and help faculty and students learn the ways they can work together to stand up and stretch.

Meahwhile, depression, anxiety, impulsive behaviour and poor cognitive performance in children is affected by the amount of sleep they have, researchers from the University of Warwick have found. Sleep states are active processes that support reorganisation of brain circuitry.

This makes sleep especially important for children, whose brains are developing and reorganising rapidly.

In the paper 'Sleep duration, brain structure, and psychiatric and cognitive problems in children,' published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, 11,000 children aged 9-11 from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development dataset had the relationship between sleep duration and brain structure examined by researchers Professor Jianfeng Feng, Prof Edmund Rolls, Dr Wei Cheng and colleagues from the University of Warwick's Department of Computer Science and Fudan University.

Measures of depression, anxiety, impulsive behaviour and poor cognitive performance in the children were associated with shorter sleep duration. Moreover, the depressive problems were associated with short sleep duration one year later.

Lower brain volume of brain areas involved the orbitofrontal cortex, prefrontal and temporal cortex, precuneus, and supramarginal gyrus was found to be associated with the shorter sleep duration by using big data analysis approach.

Prof Jianfeng Feng, from the University of Warwick's Department of Computer Science comments: "The recommended amount of sleep for children 6-12 years of age is 9-12 hours. However, sleep disturbances are common among children and adolescents around the world due to the increasing demand on their time from school, increased screen time use, and sports and social activities.

A previous study showed that about 60% of adolescents in the United States receive less than eight hours of sleep on school nights.

"Our findings showed that the behaviour problems total score for children with less than 7 hours sleep was 53 per cent higher on average and the cognitive total score was 7.8 per cent lower on average than for children with 9-11 hours of sleep. It highlights the importance of enough sleep in both cognition and mental health in children."

Prof Edmund Rolls from the University of Warwick's Department of Computer Science also commented: "These are important associations that have been identified between sleep duration in children, brain structure, and cognitive and mental health measures, but further research is needed to discover the underlying reasons for these relationships."

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Author: Science Daily

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