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Screen Time and Reading Time: Never the twain shall meet?

December 14, 2015

child reading shown on laptop for wordpress pixabay creative commons imageWith reports that screen time can impact everything from academic results to physical activity and health, it’s generally agreed that there needs to be a limit on how much time kids spend ‘on screens’. Exactly what that figure is – how many hours per day – still seems to be up for debate.

More complex arguments are beginning to emerge, too, which look at not just what time is spent on screen, but what it is that kids are doing: are all the activities bad, or is there an in between, ‘third way’ interpretation?

Parentzone is an organisation which helps families, especially parents, get to grips with the net and the issues it throws up. Vicki Shotbolt, chief executive of Parentzone,  is quoted on as saying ‘We are having a bit of a panic about screen time. What’s absolutely true is that technology has changed family life forever but that does not mean it’s a change for the worse.’

She argues that parents need to appreciate the sophisticated ways that children use technology. ‘There’s a real issue with making time online sound like bad or wasted time. If a child is spending 15 hours on YouTube teaching themselves to play the violin then that might be a good use of their time.’ (Source)

But what about using screens to read? Is that a good, bad or mixed thing for kids?

Reading on screen is certainly no replacement for snuggling up for bedtime reading with a printed book. And indeed, there are some elements of children’s books (picture books and large-format illustrated books in particular) that are currently very hard to replicate on screen.

But there are also some advantages to electronic formats. There are a number of NGOs working internationally to provide e-reading devices and electronic texts to children in developing countries. In these countries, mobile technology is becoming available at a much faster rate than the funds or infrastructure to deliver print books.

Here in suburban Sydney, we know several families who mix screen and print formats based on convenience. Being able to ‘instantly’ download a book can satisfy their child’s hunger for a ‘next read’, especially when they’re away on holidays. (We’re talking about primary-age and older kids here, who are confidently reading fiction on their own, and who continue to enjoy print books as well.)

There are certainly some thought-provoking studies and arguments on the topic. Here are a few we’ve been following recently.

Are kids keen to abandon print?

In Australia, the UK. and the U.S.A., the proportion of children’s books sold in electronic format is still much lower than for adult books.

And several studies show that children and teens actually have a preference for reading in print, even if e-books are available to them.

A U.S. study run by the major international children’s publisher Scholastic Inc in 2014, suggests that kids themselves are certainly not ready to abandon print. It found that kids who were reading ebooks were enjoying reading more overall, but that they were still reading more in print than in ‘e’. And, 65% of kids aged 6-17 said they would always want to read some books in print even if ebooks are available to them.

Are there literacy benefits associated with e-reading?

reading on tablet for wordpress creative commons image pixabayTES recently reported on a study run by The Literacy Trust in the U.K., which suggests that reading in electronic format can improve many kids’ reading skills and motivation, with an especially marked impact on boys.

Overall, the 468 primary school children who took part in the project saw their reading levels increase by an average of eight months (8.4 months for boys, 7.2 months for girls).

The proportion of boys who described reading as difficult dropped from 28 percent before the project to 15.9 per cent after.

There were also improvements across the board in enjoyment of reading, the number of kids who read daily, and the length of time they chose to read.

Why? Further findings from the study will be released down the track but Irene Picton, research manager at the National Literacy Trust, said ‘it is important to recognise the increased reading opportunities that technology offers pupils and how it can help children who struggle to read, for example, by giving them the option of increasing the font size of the text. This study indicates that technology has the most potential to engage children, particularly boys, who do not enjoy reading.’ (TES article, National Literacy Trust findings.)

A separate study also run by the Literacy Trust found that for much younger kids – those aged 3 to 5 – ‘sharing both printed stories and stories on a touch screen benefits children’s vocabulary attainment compared with looking at or reading printed stories only.’ (This study)

In the U.S., Lisa Guernsey, a former reporter who directs the early Education Initiative and Learning Technologies project at a think tank called New America, and Michael H. Levine, a child development and policy expert and the founding director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Centre at Sesame Street Workshop,  have recently published a book which aims to look in a more subtle way at the benefits and negatives of screens for reading. We’re keen to read more of their Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens.

USA Today reports that there are several innovative projects covered in the book, including one at the University of Chicago that prompts parents to spend more time reading with their children: ‘In initial trials, researchers lent families iPads with an app that allows parents to record themselves reading stories to their children. A few were also asked to commit to reading to their children for a set number of minutes each week. They got daily text messages from researchers reminding them of their goal and of the importance of spending time reading to their children.

‘The results showed big gains in reading time with the app, but researchers are still analysing whether parents who got the messages, as well as recognition each week for their efforts, read more.’ (USA Today story)

Kids can choose to do all sorts of fun things on screens. Shouldn’t we be making sure that reading – and reading interactively – is on offer too?

Nosy Crow Red Riding Hood app

Nosy Crow’s Red Riding Hood app

Kate Wilson is the Managing Director of Nosy Crow, a U.K. company which publishes children’s books in print as well as innovative, award-winning storytelling apps. Kate has many years’ experience in children’s publishing and is one of the most dynamic and sought-after speakers on electronic publishing internationally.

Kate argues that reading has to be part of the mix of what kids can do onscreen, and moreover, that publishers and app creators should be creating dynamic reading opportunities for them there:

‘The truth is that children are spending more and more time in front of screens, many of them touch screens. If children are spending so much time with such devices, then reading should be part of the entertainment they find there. And if they find reading there, it has to compete effectively with other things they may find in the same place.

‘Children don’t differentiate between the different kinds of media that they find on the touchscreen: they simply expect interactivity. Reading shouldn’t be deemed the most boring thing that children can do on a touchscreen, which is why developing apps that deliver a narrative successfully is so important. They can help ensure that both literacy and reading for pleasure are not threatened by advances in technology, but in fact supported by these advances.

‘Story book apps with audio can increase children’s access to text-based stories – as much as we wish it weren’t the case, children can’t just clamber into an adult’s lap and share a picture book at any time they want. And apps can be invaluable for reluctant readers, easing them into narrative enjoyment, and then to printed stories. A good example would be Ines, who is seven and who has Down’s Syndrome. Ines’s mother has tweeted to say, “Ines now enjoys sharing the real books of the stories that the Nosy Crow apps have introduced her to. For her, the apps have been a bridge.”

‘I think that there is a generation of children that we have to serve well with imaginative and compelling digital reading experiences.’ (Full article by Wilson)

According to, ‘interactive digital books can provide an impetus for parents to interact with children in ways that have been shown to be mutually enjoyable and beneficial. The technology means that storybook apps offer a means to decrease the asymmetry of adults reading and children listening, instead providing opportunities for both parent and child to jointly discover fancy interactive features embedded in the app.’ (Full article.)

(That said, the app and enhanced book market is still developing, and other studies suggest that a poorly designed app can simply ‘overwhelm’ children with too many features.)

But what would happen if homes had no print books in them at all?

In a recent article in the New York Times, Teddy Wayne raised this additional concern about the movement towards e-reading: if there are no, or fewer, print books in the home, then kids’ opportunities to ‘discover’ books are reduced.

Wayne quotes Dr Mariah Evans, one of the authors of a study on the impact of home libraries on academic achievement. She notes that in theory, ebooks are as effective as print books in encouraging literacy, ‘but what about the casual atmosphere of living in a bookish world, and being intrigued to pull something off the shelf to see what it’s like?…I think that will depend partly on the seamless integration of our electronic devices in the future.’

Unless parents are actively ‘sharing’ their ebooks with their kids, the children never even see them, let alone handle or read them.

This concern certainly resonates with us. We’ve written before about the significance of the size of a family’s library and how ‘happening upon’ a book left lying around the house can encourage a less enthusiastic reader.

And Wayne argues the impact across all written media: ‘the decline of print journalism means that millions of children are eating breakfast at tables without any reading material other than what they bring. That hypothetical 9-year-old may not be inclined to read an op-ed about Syria in the family’s copy of the newspaper, but at least that child sees the headline and is reminded of the existence of the outside world, for better or worse. And it would take very curious teenagers to read, during a hurried meal before school, an adult periodical online over whatever they typically default to on their own devices.’ (NYT article)

What do you think? What formats do you and your children read in? We’d love to hear from you in comments, below.

You might also be interested in:

Our article on reading aloud with older children

Our article on the benefits of reading including increased empathy and emotional development

Keep in touch with all our stories and book recommendations by following Better Reading Kids on Facebook.

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  1. Corinne Johnston

    I’m 60 and I’ve loved books as long as I can remember. 80% of my books are in boxes due to renovations and after 2+ years I’m seriously stressing not having them around. [as well as loving reading I suffer from Tsundoku…. Buying books and not reading them, letting them pile up unread!!!]
    We live in a tiny Sydney suburban home, but are turning the former kitchen into a library. It’s a room that one walks through, in the middle of the home, and is too tiny for even a a cot (& it was my kitchen for 30 years!!) We have our first granddaughter, now 14 months, in mind with the design. Low open shelves just for her and her books, 40+ that are classic picture and story books that belonged to her mum and uncle. I’ve read books to her since birth, and am looking forward so much to her growing awareness of the printed word and illustrations. I read what I can about scientific research into screen/printed materials, but am so glad that in her own home and in ours our little Theia will be able to pull books at random to look at, read, enjoy, including lots of our favourites.

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