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Gadgets are great, but kids are bound to books

  • Washington Post
  • Published Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013, at 2:11 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013, at 7:08 a.m.

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My children, like almost everyone else’s, find electronic devices irresistible. Their screen time is limited, but they know their way around an iPad, a 3DS and a LeapPad better than I know my way around my kitchen. So I loaded up the Kindle with “Flat Stanley” from the library and subscribed to Scholastic’s Storia app. Surely, they – particularly my reluctant reader – would be fired up about reading on a screen, right?

Wrong.

They show almost no interest in e-readers, for independent reading or being read to. It defies logic. These tech-hungry kids are gravitating toward our beat-up copies of the “Little House on the Prairie” books, the same ones I devoured over and over and over again when I was a child.

A recent study by Common Sense Media shows my children are not unusual. While 60 percent of children 8 and younger read or are read to each day, only 4 percent use an e-reader daily.

But why?

It could be that our kids prefer cuddling with us, and hearing us read, to the company of a cold, hard device.

“Kids who grow up being read to probably have a really nice association with actual physical print books,” said Caroline Knorr, parenting editor at Common Sense Media. “Most of the time they are sitting on your lap and it’s a lovely experience. That’s one of the reasons why reading to young kids is so important: The physical closeness, the bond.”

Jim Hilt, the vice president of e-books at Barnes and Noble, said the numbers in that study don’t tell the whole story. Kids aren’t using e-readers exclusively. But unlike video games and apps, which are only accessible through electronic devices, children have options when it comes to books. They may read some things on an e-reader, or use them when they are traveling, then choose a physical book for bedtime stories. Either way, he said, they are reading.

“Kids of all ages, when it comes to books, will use digital and physical books very interchangeably,” Hilt said. “It differs based on their parents’ use of devices and their personal preferences. There are certainly books that are more fun to consume digitally, and there are also books that are great to consume physically.”

Today’s parents remain somewhat conflicted about trading paper for electronic books, said Kristen Chase, a mom of four in Atlanta and the editor of the Cool Mom Tech blog. So they might be more inclined to snuggle up on the couch and read to their children from traditional books.

Leticia Barr, who writes the blog Tech-Savvy Mama, said her children – both avid readers – also prefer the real deal. They fill their Kindles with e-books when they are traveling, but when they are at home, it’s paper-and-print most of the time. She chalks it up to a love of the large-format pictures and rich text that e-books don’t always replicate. She also thinks it has something to do with the excitement of browsing a library of “real” books to find hidden treasures.

“There is something about turning the pages, looking at pictures and pointing things out, that makes you slow down,” Barr said. “There’s a lot of appeal in that for families.”

Barr said her children go back and forth between print books and e-readers, depending on where they are and what the content is.

Chase said her oldest child, who is 9, enjoys reading both ways. Chase loves the convenience of e-books.

“My daughter reads two or three books a day, and with four kids, I can’t imagine a pile of books that big in my house,” she said. “It’s saved space, and it’s saved my sanity. They’re not piled up on a shelf in her room; we’re not keeping track of library books. It’s really made a difference in terms of our quality of life.”

Because parents have expressed concerns about security and access to content on these devices, Barnes and Noble and Amazon have introduced new features on their e-readers and tablets in recent months. Password-protected user profiles and the ability to block certain content or features are meant to appeal to parents.

Parents want to keep Harry Potter-hungry eyes from inadvertently stumbling on “Fifty Shades of Grey,” Hilt said, without having to buy multiple devices.

Amazon calls this Kindle FreeTime, and it is available on the new Paperwhite and the Fire, according to Danielle Hopcus of Amazon. In addition to having separate, password-protected profiles, it also allows parents to hand out “achievement badges” when their children hit milestones. It provides a progress report where parents can see how long their child read, how many words he looked up and which books he has finished. Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns the Washington Post.

The Kindle Fire’s version of FreeTime also allows parents to limit their child’s access to certain apps or games, their ability to browse the Internet and the amount of time they can spend watching videos or playing games.

Barnes and Noble’s Nook HD and HD+ tablets also offer profiles that allow parents to control access to certain features, according to Hilt. The profiles are password-protected so parents can choose which apps and games they want their children to use, and can block Web browsing and shopping.

Hilt said the advantage of e-readers is their portability. It makes it easy to have a lot of reading options on one small device.

“If you’ve ever seen a 5-year-old pick out books for bedtime, you know they race back to you with stacks of books,” Hilt said. “The device allows a wide variety of content, which is what kids want, that you can move through relatively quickly.”

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