Since the invention of the television, a box you could put a child in front of and leave them passively entertained, nothing has changed how children spend their time as much as the tablet computer.
Four years ago, just 7% of 5- to 15-year-olds in the UK had access to a tablet. By last year it was 71%. Some 34% of this age group even owned the tablets themselves, as well as 11% of 3- to 4-year-olds, according to Ofcom figures.
But the popularity of tablets among children is a controversial topic. Are these devices â€“ with their apps, games and access to online video â€“ distracting children from more traditional, some might say more wholesome, activities, such as reading?
In my work life, I regularly write about the beneficial aspects of digital play, complementing books and physical exercise rather than replacing them. But as a parent of a six-year-old and an eight-year-old, I worry about the comments suggesting â€“ with varying degrees of politeness â€“ that devices and apps are sending our children to illiteracy hell in a digital handcart. What if those people are right?
How have childrenâ€™s reading habits changed over the last five years since the launch of Appleâ€™s first iPad in 2010 â€“ and can the growth in their digital habits be linked to a fall in reading?
Reading on the rise?
Around two fifths of young British children read every day. Ofcom found that 40% of 5- to 7-year-olds and 39% of 8- to 11-year-olds read magazines, comics or books almost every day, in its 2014 Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes report.
The UKâ€™s National Literacy Trust (NLT)â€˜s Childrenâ€™s and Young Peopleâ€™s Reading in 2014 report offers a similar statistic, noting that the percentage of 8- to 18 year-olds reading daily outside class was 41.4% in 2014 – up from 29.1% in 2010.
By contrast, Publisher Scholastic publishes a biannual Kids & Family Reading Report covering American childrenâ€™s reading habits. Its latest edition suggests the percentage of US 6- to 17-year-olds reading books for fun 5-7 days a week fell from 37% in 2010 to 34% in 2012, then 31% in 2014.
Clearly there is no consensus.
Focus on focusing
Joanna de Guia recently closed her independent childrenâ€™s bookshop in Hackney to launch Story Habit, which runs author events, school workshops and â€œliterature walksâ€ to encourage children to read for fun.
â€œIâ€™m afraid Iâ€™m going to get political about this,â€ she says. â€œReading for pleasure has always been cornered by the middle- and upper-middle classes, although historically thereâ€™s also been a very self-determined, self-educated working class group whoâ€™ve also had a tradition of reading for pleasure and understanding how important it is.â€
De Guia believes that this tradition has been â€œchipped away atâ€ in recent decades, and as a critic of the phonics system used to teach early reading skills in schools, she is concerned that reading may seem like a chore to many children.
â€œIf you come from a family where you go home and read a story at night, and associate reading with lovely time with your parents, the fact that you do this dull-as-ditchwater thing at school is immaterial,â€ says de Guia.
â€œBut if you do no reading at home, then go to school and are forced to do this dull thing with no idea really why youâ€™re doing it other than â€˜itâ€™s something youâ€™ve got to doâ€™, then itâ€™s totally going to put you off. We interfere: â€˜You have to read. You have to read THISâ€™. Thereâ€™s nothing more guaranteed to put a child off something.â€
Where does technology fit in to this? De Guia is concerned that with games, apps and videos, tablets provide too many distractions from longer-form reading.
â€œYou donâ€™t get that opportunity to just sit and immerse yourself in a story from beginning to end. Thatâ€™s brilliant for concentration, and, importantly, it creates a context for the idea of narrative. The amount of concentration required on any digital device is very short,â€ she says.
â€œSo, reading for pleasure is not being supported by our educational curriculum, and thereâ€™s the prevalence of these new toys-slash-tools [tablets]. And they conspire to create very short attention spans, and children who want instant gratification.â€
â€œIf theyâ€™re not getting that instant gratification from the book theyâ€™re reading, they can just play a game instead. So what happens to the story? I worry about a generation of children who donâ€™t want to know what the end of the story is, because thatâ€™s how we make sense of the world.â€
Screens and reading
Tablets as distractions from reading through other forms of entertainment is one thing. But what about digital reading on these devices? Can inventive apps and absorbing ebooks fuel childrenâ€™s desire to know what the end of the story is? Could they even have some advantages over print reading?
This is where you plunge into a world of academic research studies that can leave you with more questions than answers.
There are studies suggesting that reading digitally is worse for recall and comprehension than reading books â€“ yet many of them are based on computer screens not touchscreen tablets, and involved adults whoâ€™d grown up reading books, not children whoâ€™ve been swiping on tablets since they were toddlers.
There are studies suggesting that reading digitally may, in fact, benefit certain groups of children, from boys from disadvantaged backgrounds who struggle with print, through to children with dyslexia â€“ but many of these are based on small sample groups, with the common conclusion being that more research is needed.
â€œWe need newer research, larger-scale research and a younger cohort,â€ says NLT project manager Irene Picton. â€œWeâ€™re really keen to look at how technology could be used to positively support less confident parents in sharing books and stories with their children, for example. A really good app or website could be a force for good in that situation.â€
â€œAlmost everything about e-reading is preliminary or small-scale at this point,â€ agrees David Kleeman, senior vice president of global trends at research firm Dubit.
Kleeman makes another important point, though, which is that children are reading even when they are not explicitly reading ebooks or book-apps on their devices.
â€œIt is hard to tell what â€˜readingâ€™ is today: weâ€™re not really measuring the amount of content that kids are reading incidentally within games and apps,â€ he says, suggesting that â€œscreen time is no longer a viable termâ€ because children are doing so many things on those screens, many of which require reading text.
Books on the screen
App developers have been exploring tablet stories for children since the earliest days of the iPad, and there has been scepticism from the start about whether some of these apps help or hinder the development of reading skills.
Childrenâ€™s author Julia Donaldson made headlines in 2011 when she explained why there wasnâ€™t an official app for The Gruffalo:
â€œThe publishers showed me an ebook of Alice in Wonderland. They said, â€˜Look, you can press buttons and do this and thatâ€™, and they showed me the page where Aliceâ€™s neck gets longer. Thereâ€™s a button the child can press to make the neck stretch, and I thought, well, if the childâ€™s doing that, they are not going to be listening or reading, â€˜I wish my cat Dinah was hereâ€™ or whatever it says in the text â€“ theyâ€™re just going to be fiddling with this wretched button.â€
Donaldsonâ€™s views carried (and still carry) real clout among publishers and parents alike. But the app in question was one of the early, experimental attempts to figure out how tablet reading might work for children. There are four years of further experiments and learnings since then, and more to come.
â€œWe often forget that books are a technology too, and one thatâ€™s had several centuries to evolve. With ebooks or apps, weâ€™re comparing them to a relatively new format for reading. Itâ€™s important to be open-minded around this,â€ says Picton.
â€œDonâ€™t forget the suspicion with which Socrates greeted writing. He thought that people wouldnâ€™t remember things if they were reading them rather than listening to them. Now weâ€™re worried about not remembering things because weâ€™re reading them on a screen not a page.â€
â€œWeâ€™ve got an opportunity here with digital reading â€“ ebooks and apps that encourage reading in all its forms â€“ to keep reading relevant. And by being suspicious of it and saying itâ€™s worse than reading on paper, we ignore that opportunity.â€
Kleeman offers what sounds like a more 2015 take on Donaldsonâ€™s warning, though. â€œWith one screen competing for the childâ€™s attention with every possibility â€“ video, apps, games, books, social apps â€“ itâ€™s very easy to get seduced by possibilities: to throw in bells and whistles that donâ€™t support or enhance the story, but distract,â€ he says.
Asi Sharabi, co-founder of British startup Lost My Name, which makes personalised (print) books for children, thinks that tablets may have a deeper, cultural problem with reading as a shared experience between children and parents.
â€œOne thing that the iPad as a device, as a cultural artifact, has never really been good at are these shared co-reading experiences. Unlike books, where thereâ€™s no option but to sit down and read it with your kid in the early years,â€ he says.
â€œThe tablet took a slightly different direction: it became the modern babysitter, or the modern pacifier. Thatâ€™s not necessarily a negative thing, but itâ€™s more about giving the child the device â€“ â€˜Itâ€™s your iPad time nowâ€™ â€“ rather than sitting down to read or play together on it.â€
Sharabi suspects this may be rooted in how parents have been using television for decades: screen-based entertainment for children is often a chance for parents to get other things done.
â€œItâ€™s not just that kids are expecting screens to be noisy and shouty and fun and interactive. But also because of our middle-class guilt, where we put boundaries around screen time and tablet use, when kids get half an hour or an hour with the iPad, they will opt for the things that excite them the most.â€
Support for this theory can be found in a report called Exploring Play and Creativity in Pre-Schoolersâ€™ Use of Apps, which surveyed 2,000 parents and found their favourite childrenâ€™s apps were educational and story apps.
The childrenâ€™s top 10 favourite app brands? YouTube, CBeebies, Angry Birds, Peppaâ€™s Paintbox, Talking Tom, Temple Run, Minecraft, Disney apps, Candy Crush Saga and Toca Boca apps.
Sharabi backs up Kleemanâ€™s view that story-apps that try to ape those other forms of entertainment may be fun, but they wonâ€™t necessarily be good for reading.
â€œGetting kids really deeply engaged in a narrative is something that books are very good at. Itâ€™s the working of the imagination: that time and cognitive space that you need to develop the understanding and empathy with the characters; the plot; the emotion of the book,â€ he says.
â€œThese are all things that interactive storybooks are just not doing well enough. Kids will always look first for what they can do next on the screen to trigger some interactivity.â€ A topic that Natalia Kucirkova explored in more depth for the Guardian in December 2014.
Books as technology
Both Sharabi and Picton make the point that books, as much as apps, are a form of technology, with features including being designed for co-reading; capable of being beautiful physical objects; and capable of being read when the tablet has been put away for the day.
â€œA book is a beautiful thing if itâ€™s produced beautifully, even for children who donâ€™t value reading. If itâ€™s a desirable thing, theyâ€™ll want it as much as they would want an iPad or anything else,â€ says De Guia. â€œWe just have to get more clever about how we present real books.â€
Kate McFarlan, strategic director at British book-printing company Clays, suggests that, for books, providing a break from screens â€œis a factor welcomed by children as well as parentsâ€, and points out that one in four books sold in the UK last year were for children, with quality on the rise.
â€œWe have in the last few years started working with three or four new childrenâ€™s publishers, all of which are growing. Their emphasis is on quality and good value, beautiful designs and great finishes,â€ she says.
And parents, carers, teachers or older siblings to read them with. Which is where this whole debate about children, reading and screens comes back to, well, people not technology. And this is a familiar subject in the academic and parenting worlds alike.
Dr Gareth Williams, an expert in reading development at Nottingham Trent University, fills me in on â€œThe Matthew Effectâ€, for example: a theory that young children who are encouraged to develop their language skills will take to reading more naturally a few years later.
â€œItâ€™s about predicting how good children are at reading and how much they enjoy it when theyâ€™re older by tracking back the development pathway to things like language development and language play when theyâ€™re younger,â€ he said.
â€œSo, how confident very young children are with playing around with language helps them when they later begin to engage with print. They already have that foundation.â€
Williams also cites research indicating that childrenâ€™s reading abilities may be linked to the prevalence of books in their home, and suggests more research is needed â€“ that mantra again â€“ into whether there is a similar effect if the adults in the household use tablets for reading, including with the children.
Co-reading may be key
â€œWe think of books as being a very solo, individual activity, but for young children â€“ pre-readers â€“ books are very much a social activity, whether theyâ€™re being read to in a group, or by a parent,â€ says Williams. â€œGoing forward, can that social and interactive aspect happen with devices as well as books? Really it comes down to the people.â€
Scholasticâ€™s latest report provides more fuel for that theory, claiming that factors that predict if 6- to 11-year-olds will be frequent readers include â€œhaving parents who are frequent readersâ€, â€œreading aloud early and oftenâ€, and â€œspending less time online using a computerâ€.
Itâ€™s a simultaneously reassuring and worrying concept. Reassuring, because it sidesteps the â€œare my children playing games not reading on the tablet?â€ question, if youâ€™re reading to/with them when the tablet is turned off.
Worrying, because thereâ€™s a danger that this boils down to another opportunity for parent-shaming: from frazzled full-time parents to shift-workers to white-collar 60-hours-a-week executives (Amazon staff included), finding quality time for co-reading can be tough.
Thereâ€™s no easy answer, then: no clear villain on either the technology or people side of the battle to figure out healthy media habits for children â€“ let alone put them into practice. Although more than one interviewee pointed to one example of people and technology bringing the worst out of one another.
â€œMaybe the problem with kids and screens is not kids and screens: itâ€™s parents and screens,â€ says one, privately. â€œChildren look to us as role models, so how can we expect them to love reading, if we canâ€™t tear ourselves away from Facebook or WhatsApp for ten minutes to read with them?â€