Children need a healthy diet of print and digital

“We are concerned by our finding that children who only read on-screen are significantly less likely to enjoy reading and less likely to be strong readers. New technology clearly has a valuable part to play in literacy development, but we would encourage parents to ensure their children still read in print form if they are to become avid readers and reach their full potential in school.”

~Jonathan Douglas, Director, National Literacy Trust

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A new UK study reveals that for the first time children are reading more in digital than in print. No surprise there. The digital generation loves their computer games, tablets, mobile phones and e-readers.

But here’s the kicker: too much technology comes with a cost. Released in May 2013, the National Literacy Trust survey shows that overexposure to digital is actually having a negative impact on children’s literacy skills and their enjoyment of reading. The survey, conducted with close to 35,000 students, aged eight to 16, at 188 schools in the UK, found that:

  • 39% of children and young people read on electronic devices every day, whereas only 28% read printed materials daily, and the number of children reading e-books has doubled in the last two years from 6% to 12%
  • those who read daily on screen are almost twice less likely to be above-average readers than those who read regularly in print (or in print and on screen): 15.5% compared to 26%
  • those who read only on screen are also three times less likely to enjoy reading (12% compared to 51%), and a third less likely to have a favourite book—just 59% of children surveyed who read on screen had one, compared to 77% of kids who prefer to read print books
  • girls are much more likely than boys to read in print, with 68% of girls reading in print compared to 54% of boys

These results are worrying. This is just a starting point to be sure (we need to know much more about the long-term effects of digital on our children’s cognitive development), but potentially a warning sign of trouble ahead. Hopefully this information will encourage schools, libraries, parents, policy makers, and publishers to take a closer look at the impact of digital on children’s health, well-being and literacy.

Most modern parents already know the importance of limiting screen time for children. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting a child’s use of TV, movies, video and computer games to no more than one or two hours a day. Too much screen time has been linked to obesity, irregular sleep, behavioural problems, impaired academic performance, violence, and less time for active creative play (source: Mayo Clinic).

And it’s a lot harder to control screen time if our children are reading and learning on computers at school and in libraries.

No one is calling for an end to digital. There is a real upside for many children: Computers, e-readers or tablets actually encourage literacy among many non-readers. For example, in this study, more than 50% said they “prefer” to read on screen than in print. And sadly, the National Literacy Trust published a report last year revealing that many children are embarrassed to be seen with a book!

It’s all about creating a “healthier reading balance”, says Jonathan Douglas, Director of the National Literacy Trust:

“Our research confirms that technology is playing a central role in young people’s literacy development and reading choice. While we welcome the positive impact which technology has on bringing further reading opportunities to young people, it’s crucial that reading in print is not cast aside.”

Reading in print is an easy way to ensure this balance–and my family would rather cuddle up with a paper book than an e-reader at the end of a busy day. I think many parents see the benefits first-hand: The peaceful downtime (no bright screens, no buzzing, no batteries!), the focus on one task, the tactile pleasure of flipping pages, and the simple joy of getting lost in a good book. Now, we have the stats to back this up.

You can read the National Literacy Trust report here: http://www.literacytrust.org.uk/news/5372_children_s_on-screen_reading_overtakes_reading_in_print

7 comments

  1. This makes for interesting reading, and I am not just saying that because I work with the National Literacy Trust! I think that digital platforms have their place particularly in encouraging reluctant readers (and apparently they are good for boys who prefer a more technological approach to reading) but I agree that we demote the value of the printed word to our peril. For example, while picture books do exist on digital formats, I still believe their value and skill cannot be appreciated to the same extent as in print, and picture books are a valuable tool in promoting literacy. Luckily my daughter still prefers ‘real’ books and chides me when I pull out my Kindle!

    • Thanks for your comment! I just discovered the National Literacy Trust. What an incredible resource, and great to know that you are involved. Good on your daughter–mine is the same way. I don’t think she’ll ever take to reading for pleasure on-line. For her, reading is directly tied to a love of paper books.

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