Will Our Children Read E-Books?

The latest statistics tell us more kids are reading e-books.  But the progress bar has not advanced nearly as far as prognosticators expected or manufacturers hoped.  A Bowker executive, addressing a recent Digital Book World conference, reported on findings culled from a survey of about 1,000 teens and some 2,000 parents and caregivers of young children.  Among older kids, 19% have tried e-books but only 6% read them witn any regularity. As for younger ones, only 25% of parents even own an e-book reader.  Among children 7 to 12 only 13% read on e-readers and 11% on tablets.

Is that a bad thing?  Not necessarily.  Though more and more adults are adopting digital reading habits, they are encouraging their kids to read print books and in fact promoting something akin to Luddism, such as sending them to schools where no digital devices are to be found (see High-Tech Kids in No-Tech Schools).  At bedtime they will put their Nook or Kindle down and go into their child’s bedroom to read a print-book bedtime story. So  when it comes to e-books it’s a matter of Do as I say, not as I do. And though picture book apps, including stories that “tell” themselves without parents present, are great fun, they just don’t seem to have the same appeal as the warm body and familiar voice of mommy or daddy.

Schools and libraries do not seem to be tripping over themselves to promote e-reading either. One good reason is that the children’s print business is one of the few sectors of the publishing industry that are thriving, so there is a strong financial incentive for publishers to maintain the p-book status quo.

But children form their own opinions about e-books and many reject them for very practical reasons. Because mobile phones are the device of choice for teens, the small screen size and short battery life are deterrents to e-reading.  The price of e-readers is prohibitive for many kids, who get along fine with borrowing books from the library or from each other.  And speaking of borrowing, DRM restrictions on sharing e-books is another dampening factor for teens, just as it is for adults.

For years we have expressed skepticism that, due to their high distraction quotient, screens are the best medium for young readers (see The Medium is the Screen, the Message is Distraction), and (with the exception of autistic children), there has been little recent evidence to the contrary.   In a recent New York Times article, K, J. Dell’Antonia reported an observation by Lisa Guernsey of the New America Foundation’s Early Education Initiative that “when we read with a child on an e-reader, we may actually impede our child’s ability to learn.”

“Children sitting with a parent while an e-reader reads to them, Dell’Antonia writes, “understand significantly less of what’s read than those hearing a parent read. Researchers at Temple University, where the study was done, noted that parents reading books aloud regularly asked children questions about the book: ‘What do you think will happen next?’ Parents sitting with the child while a device read to them (like a LeapPad or some iPad apps) didn’t ask these questions, or relate images or incidents in the book to the child’s real life. Instead, their conversation was focused on how to use the device: ‘Careful! Push here. Hold it this way.’” (Details in Why Books Are Better than e-Books for Children)

Does that mean that the next generation will reject e-books?  Not likely.  But as research develops about the reading habits and learning and retention of children using e-books, we may see a greater balance between electronic and printed books than the e-fatuation that has us in its grips today. If we don’t – well, see Digital Distractions Producing a Nation of Morons?

Richard Curtis

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