Since the invention of the television, a box you could put children 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 seven per cent of 5- to 15-year-olds in the UK had access to a tablet. By last year it was 71 per cent. Some 34 per cent of this age group even owned the tablets themselves, as well as 11 per cent of three- to four-year-olds, according to Ofcom figures.
But the popularity of tablets among children is a controversial topic. Are these devices – with their apps, games and access to online video – 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 – with varying degrees of politeness – that devices and apps are sending our children to illiteracy hell in a digital handcart. What if those people are right?
How have children’s reading habits changed over the last five years since the launch of Apple’s first iPad in 2010 – 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 per cent of five- to seven-year-olds and 39 per cent of eight- to 11-year-olds read magazines, comics or books almost every day, in its 2014 Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes report.
The UK’s National Literacy Trust’s Children’s and Young People’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 per cent in 2014 – up from 29.1 per cent in 2010.
By contrast, Publisher Scholastic publishes a biannual Kids & Family Reading Report covering American children’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 per cent in 2010 to 34 per cent in 2012, then 31 per cent in 2014.
Clearly there is no consensus
Joanna de Guia recently closed her independent children’s bookshop in Hackney to launch Story Habit, which runs author events, school workshops and “literature walks” to encourage children to read for fun.
“I’m afraid I’m going to get political about this,” she says. “Reading for pleasure has always been cornered by the middle- and upper-middle classes, although historically there’s also been a very self-determined, self-educated working class group who’ve also had a tradition of reading for pleasure and understanding how important it is.”
De Guia believes that this tradition has been “chipped away at” 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.
“If 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,” says de Guia.
“But if you do no reading at home, then go to school and are forced to do this dull thing with no idea really why you’re doing it other than ‘it’s something you’ve got to do’, then it’s totally going to put you off. We interfere: ‘You have to read. You have to read THIS’. There’s nothing more guaranteed to put a child off something.”
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.
“You don’t get that opportunity to just sit and immerse yourself in a story from beginning to end. That’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,” she says.