By Jeremy Greenfield, Editorial Director, Digital Book World, @JDGsaid
If you pay attention to the media covering book publishing, you have probably noticed a recent uptick in stories about of children’s e-books and apps. Much of this coverage is borderline-hysterical scare-mongering over zombified children’s faces lit by the flickering glow of the blue iPad screen.
Shouldn’t they, instead, be curled up in front of a warm fire with an oversized edition of Berenstain Bears, cuddling with both parents under an old quilt sewn by wise grandmothers at a time when peace filled the earth?
According to Julie Bosman of the New York Times, at least four parents in the U.S. think so. And some of those who Bosman spoke with work — gasp! — in digital companies! This clearly proves that e-books are bad for your children; people who know said so. At Publishing Perspectives, a recent piece asks whether the pleasure of reading with your children can ever be replicated digitally. The author himself hesitates to use his iPad to read to his daughter at night. See?!
While these feelings resonate (one can imagine a child’s eyes glazing over while interacting with a back-lit screen as easily as it is to imagine that same child animated and filled with wonder by the more-tangible experience of an oversized edition of Dr. Seuss’s One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish), there is still no academic evidence that reading e-books with your children is bad for them. And the fact that we feel that it’s so, or that a few parents are of that opinion, is no substitute for rigorous study of the issue.
Countless academic papers have been written about reading and children over decades and the message is clear: Read to your kids; read with your kids. The technology that has given rise to the current debate has only existed since early 2010 when the iPad was launched, leaving little time for serious study. The technology that allows parents and children to cuddle up together and read before bedtime, however, has existed since Gutenberg.
“The recent flurry of articles about the potential development perils of e-book use by the young stems from a very natural fear of the unknown,” said Nicole Deming, a spokesperson for the Children’s Book Council, a New York-based trade association for children’s book publishers. “At this stage, there simply aren’t studies we can point to on the effects of this technology.”
The imprimatur of an academic study showing the positive effects of reading to children with an iPad or Kindle Fire would certainly help children’s book publishers sell books. And research that says the opposite would suggest to children’s book publishers that they figure out better ways to serve their readers digitally.
Jennifer Perry, vice president of Sesame Street’s worldwide publishing division, told Publishing Perspectives in an article about Sesame Street’s publishing efforts that “digital publishing is so new, that very little work has been done on how kids interface with technology…. We looked for research on devices…. We found nothing.” She added that Sesame Street has begun conducting its own research and will present some of the findings at the Frankfurt Book Fair next year.
In addition to research conducted by an educational, nonprofit organization like Sesame Street, the children’s book publishing industry could benefit from, independent, academic research on the topic. The news media that cover the issue, too, have a duty to try to unearth the truth; perhaps the New York Times, with its vast resources and highly trained journalists, can do better next time than to find four parents who reinforce each others’ fears and instead try to figure out whether digital children’s books are indeed bad for children and why.
Write to Jeremy Greenfield