Are Ebooks Worse for Kids Than Paper Books?

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

ebooks, children's publishing, books, physical booksTwo recent surveys on children and digital books have generated headlines hinting at ebooks’ negative influence on kids. Are these reports two more sources of data proving that digital books are worse for children than paper books? Where, exactly, is the proof that ebooks are poor choices for kids?

Last month, the UK’s National Literacy Trust concluded in a report that kids who read ebooks read more poorly than those who read paper books. The ensuing public relations buzz indicated that this survey proves ebooks are bad for kids. New Europe Online wrote an article based on this research with the headline, “Ebooks affect children’s reading level, research says“.

Most recently, the Pew Research Center released a survey summarized by the headline, “In a digital age, parents value printed books for their kids.” The press took this as an indictment of kids’ ebooks. The LA Times, for example, generated a headline based on their reading of the survey results that states, “Tech-savvy parents prefer print over ebooks for kids”.

Do e-readers cause lower reading levels, or do high-aptitude readers just read more print books?

The National Literacy Trust survey summarizes its findings in a May 16, 2013 article entitled, “Children’s on-screen reading overtakes reading in print.” The article states (emphasis mine):

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For the first time children are reading more on computers and other electronic devices than they are reading books, magazines, newspapers and comics. This is potentially detrimental to children’s reading levels as those who read daily only on-screen are much less likely to be good readers than those who read in print.

This article asserts, as if it’s a sure thing, that ebooks are “detrimental” to children’s reading levels. But let’s look at the facts here.

The survey reports high reading levels correlated to reading both books and ebooks. That makes intuitive sense. Kids who read a lot read everything, everywhere, all the time. They read cereal boxes, newspapers left on the coffee table, magazines in the dentist’s waiting room, their parents’ junk mail… kids who like to read, read from a lot of sources. They read more, both in print and on e-readers. All this reading causes them to get more proficient, leading them to read a little more… low and behold these are the kids who perform better on reading tests at school.

This does not prove that digital books “cause” lower reading levels. There’s no correlation here at all. Just because kids who are “above average readers” read more print books than kids with lower reading levels, this does not prove that digital books have any causal relationship with lower reading levels. That is, just because only “above average” readers read more print books, that doesn’t mean that those who read fewer print books or who read most of their books digitally are being damaged by digital books.

Some more evidence from the same article:

The research … found those who read daily only on-screen are nearly twice less likely to be above average readers than those who read daily in print or in print and on-screen (15.5% vs 26%). Those who read only on-screen are also three times less likely to enjoy reading very much (12% vs 51%) and a third less likely to have a favourite book (59% vs 77%).

If a child reads mostly on-screen, and doesn’t have a favorite book, does that mean ebooks are bad fro her? If a child reads mostly on-screen, and doesn’t much like reading, does that mean the ebook caused her dislike? These facts may be parellel, but not necessarily causal.

Do parents “prefer” print books or do they simply believe it’s “important” to share print books with their kids?

The recent Pew study reports that more than nine in ten tech-savvy parents of minor children say it is important to them that their children read print books. The ensuing narrative indicates that, therefore, digital books are somehow detrimental to children. The Pew Study report states: “as parents adopt new reading habits for themselves on electronic devices, the data show that print books remain important when it comes to their children.” This seems like a case of do-as-I-say-not-do-as-I-do parenting.

Media headlines that derive from the Pew research and its analysis indicate ebooks lack something compared with print books. Even the Good E-Reader website headlined their article “Tech-Savvy Parents Still Choosing Print For Their Kids,” as if print books are spinach and ebooks are junk food.

Ebooks are new, all parents today grew up with paper books. Could parents’ choice of paper books stem from their experience as children? What, really, is the difference between holding a child on your lap and flipping though a paper book and holding a child on your lap and scrolling though an iBook? In both cases, a child and a loved one are sharing time together, delighting in a story together, experiencing words and pictures together.

As kids get older, and are able to read more independently, digital books allow children faster and less expensive access to books. Reading is on the rise for youth, thanks to easy access to of e-content. Any time we can show that kids are reading more is a positive outcome. But this is not what makes headlines.

Are digital books “unhealthy” for kids?

Why do these surveys  emphasize the negatives and seem to promote a preference for print? My guess is that some parents and educators correlate digital screens with “unhealthiness.” For years, they’ve been trying to wean their kids off of TV and video games. TV and video game screens are windows into non-reading activities.  Ebooks, however, are not video games or passive TV shows. They are more like regular books than they are like passive programming or twich games.

Digital books can be part of a kids’ balanced life

Digital books can be, for children, a helpful part of a balanced life, that includes a range of   physical activities, skill development, and social interactions. Prolonged exposure to bright screens can cause eye strain, so parents and educators should make sure kids are not over exposed to digital screens. Also, most experts recommend keeping digital screens away from children under the age of two—but this is because young children need human interaction most of all. Neither digital screens nor paper books should ever be used as substitutes for parental involvement.

Aren’t all types of reading wonderful for kids?

Among older children, who have balanced, active lives, digital books can be a new medium that offers easy access to the wonderful, beneficial activity called reading. The benefits of reading don’t dry up simply because the text is presented on electronic screens instead of paper.

How can glass and silicon and electricity dramatically change the act of reading? Just because some digital screens (televisions and video games) present non-educational material does not mean digital books can’t also present interactive, thought-provoking, creativity-enhancing, brain-stimulating activities. Just because an activity is presented on a digital screen, it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad for kids.

39% of children read daily on screens; children prefer digital books

The recent bias against digital books for children seems to overshadow the positive facts revealed in the same surveys. The National Literacy Trust report, in fact, shows insights that digital books can lead to great progress for children’s education. Here is some more  information from the article:

Our new research with 34,910 young people aged eight to 16 reveals:

  • 39% of children and young people read daily using electronic devices including tablets and eReaders, but  only 28% read printed materials daily. The number of children reading eBooks has doubled in the last two years (from 6% to 12%).
  • Children say they prefer to read on screen. Over half (52%) said they would rather read on electronic devices but only a third (32%) would rather read in print.
  • Nearly all children have access to a computer at home and 4 out of 10 now own a tablet or a smartphone, while 3 in 10 do not have a desk of their own.
  • Girls are significantly more likely than boys to read in print (68% vs 54%)
  • Girls are also more likely to read on a range of on-screen devices including mobile phones (67% girls vs. 60% boys), eReaders (84% girls vs. 69% boys), and tablets (70% girls vs. 67% boys).

The above information, which I’ve taken directly from the report but was not included in most headlines, indicates children can benefit from digital books. Here are a few insights:

a) Kids love ebooks. Anything kids love, they will do more often.

b) Ebooks are not just for the wealthy. We are now approaching a point where “nearly all” kids have access to digital literature.

c) Boys, who historically spend less time reading paper books than girls, prefer ebooks to paper books. Maybe this will show a trend towards higher reading for boys?

Let’s do research and discuss the meanings of the results

Research on the new phenomenon of ebooks needs to continue. We all need to know how this new technology is affecting kids. But let’s report the results in an unbiased and fair way.

7 thoughts on “Are Ebooks Worse for Kids Than Paper Books?

  1. Diana Dull Akers

    As a mom to a young reader who loves books but struggles with reading, I’ve slowly but enthusiastically come around to using all the tools at our disposal to help our daughter. For us, this means moving past what sometimes feels like a fruitless debate about ebooks/digital reading versus reading traditional print books. Our daughter adores all of the print books in her collection, but she also finally read her first complete sentences using Bookboard, a subscription based ebook resource that we use on our iPad ( She is not tempted to stop reading mid book to play games. She is involved in the book and not easily distracted. I’m pleased with what ebooks are offering her.

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  6. Tim

    There is a difference between screen-reading and book reading. If there weren’t this article wouldn’t exist. But this article misses fundamental points to why screen reading isn’t thought to be a good idea. It is because the brain of the reader works differently when light is projected rather than reflected. This also has to do with things like the blue spectrum of computerized light not letting children sleep at night. -As we are physical beings, changing physical realities changes our biology. – Ebooks are not benign. It is also because the eBook is a configuration that purposely is built to draw attention away from the experience of reading in long and deep ways, through hyperlink distractions and by built in ‘visual bells and whistles’ that produce distraction. Distractions in the eBook are produced to sell the machines and to sell the digitized-content as being ‘more’ that books, to make reading more “enjoyable or entertaining” but, regardless of the sensations these distraction may elicit they are nonetheless, distractions that break the readers attention away from the written word to a sporadic or fluid audio-visual experience. The Ebook wants to suggest itself superior to the silent text ridden page, but, what ebooks really want to be is a video game! By the way, many boys are NOT reading at all. 2 in 10 boys will not have read one novel by the time they get out of high school.
    Books are tactile. Now it would be insane to suggest computers aren’t tactile, but, computer devices do not change form with changes of content, like heart does when it pumps. Or a Magazine does when it is folded. Books are thick or thin as their content is locked in a physical space and physical form. HUMAN MEMORY needs tactile forms to fully comprehend reality. The feel of a book can and does release the mind of the reader to remember the content of a book. With a book, a certain paragraph is found by the mind remembering how far into the thickness of the story (often to the page) a certain thing happened. This does not happen in an Ebook as ebooks aren’t locked in a physically tactile way. We can use a machine to search, but we can’t search ebooks because there is nothing to search! – There really is only one page to an ebook, the rest don’t exist until electricity brings them forth. We memorize from books more easily than memorizing off of an eBook because we are human and physical. College students prefer real books for serious study.
    Yes, let’s get more research, but, as we have quite a bit of research showing that screen time (including ebooks) is detrimental to the child, as it disrupts the natural brain development and body development, I would recommend backing off from ebooks and all screen technologies until the child has matured. This isn’t a reactionary statement this is a well researched statement. 0 hours on screen is the recommended amount of time for a child under 6 and 2 hours is all that should be allowed up till the child is 18. This is recommended by the Canadian Pediatric Society and the American Pediatric Society.



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