Why Are Children’s E-books Unpopular And Why Should We Care?

Judging e-books against print books is asking the wrong question

Posted Mar 24, 2019

Many adults perceive children’s technologies as fire exists rather than open doors. With children’s e-books, adults raise the alarm about increased children’s screen time, loss of interest for reading on paper and even inferior learning. A misinterpretation of research studies can easily ignite such concerns.

Early research on children’s e-books started with some unfortunate questions: Are e-books better than print books? Can interactive e-books replace reading with an adult? Today, a series of experimental studies show that the book’s format is not critical for children’s learning outcomes. If there is a difference between children’s learning from print versus e-books it is driven by the difference in specific features of books, such as their interactivity, parents’ reading style with the two formats and children's prior exposure to the medium (something that researchers noted with previous media, such as TV, too).

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For adults, reading on paper versus on screen makes a difference to their perceptions of reading content and subsequently their actual learning gains (something that researchers explain in terms of metacognition). However, children grew up with both digital and print books so they simply don’t perceive their differences in the same way as adults. What matters for children’s metacognition about reading is their developmental stage and the way the book is presented to them (is it for fun or for homework?).

Not surprisingly, with their attractive pictures, sounds, and hotspots, e-books are typically perceived as more fun. This translates into children’s greater verbal and physical engagement with e-books than with print books. Children’s engagement and enjoyment of reading matter a great deal. As Maya Angelou famously said: ‘Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him.

E-books can be adjusted to children’s reading level, language, preference. Individual titles are cheaper than print books and they are all available anytime and anywhere online. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds do not have (m)any books at home and lots of children don’t have storybooks in their native language. E-books offer a viable solution to this problem: they can be distributed via mobile phones and they can be automatically translated into multiple languages. This is why initiatives, such as the Worldreader (which provides a library of over 35,000 digital books) can make a difference.

That said, print books enjoy a long tradition and therefore a more regulated market. This helps with quality assurance and societal approval. Children’s publishers need to do much more to level the playing field and increase the quality of e-books they produce. With some notable exceptions, publishers rarely commission original content for e-books. This means that most digital storybooks are either re-tellings of popular fairy tales (that are out of copyright) or stories that replicate print titles. With this model, there is a danger of losing innovation possibilities and favoring books that show desired, rather than lived, childhoods. (Everyone knows that with print books, storybooks with princesses are the rule and storybooks with heroes living in dirty urban areas are the exception). The success of publishers such as Pratham Books in India shows that stories can be significantly diversified with e-book platforms that crowdsource illustrations and tales from their readers.

It costs a lot of money to develop original content and e-books provide a low return of investment. As a case in point, the UK-based publisher Nosy Crow released several interactive e-book titles that won international awards and were loved by English speaking parents worldwide. Notwithstanding, Nosy Crow closed its e-book production last year as the production model became unsustainable. The demise of children’s e-books is very much orchestrated by the larger infrastructure in which children’s publishers operate. The selling structure of apps favors big publishers who can afford to license of famous story stories (Disney and the like) and capture buyers’ attention in a giant app store where e-books are sold alongside games.

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But it would be too simple to lay the blame at the door of e-book producers. Parents don’t like reading e-books to their children and the situation is not much different in schools. Yes, some tech-savvy and inspiration-hungry teachers have found exciting ways of using e-books in their classrooms. Whether it is for exchanging stories with other children across the world or spicing up the reading curriculum, these teachers harness the many online resources out there. But national literacy curricula lack behind technological developments and training materials for teachers’ professional development silent on e-books. Without government and headteachers’ support, a large-scale change is unlikely to happen.

This might feel like something you already knew – adults perceive new platforms as sites of risk rather than opportunity and they favor older formats. Think of the resistance towards children’s reading of comic books, watching TV or using virtual reality. The unfortunate result of this attitude is that children use e-books on their own and designers make them for children’s independent use. Yet, studies show over and over that parent-child shared reading of e-books enhances the experience and it is the parents' talk around the e-book that adds learning value.

Anonymous, CC
Source: Anonymous, CC

No one is suggesting that e-books should replace print books, especially not in disadvantaged families. Just like video games should not replace playgrounds so should e-books not replace print books. They offer another type of reading experience and every child should be entitled to diverse reading choices.

Therefore, whether you are a parent, teacher, children’s author or publisher, do not ask ‘e-books versus print books’. Instead, think of optimizing children’s reading choices with  “print books AND e-books”.  Remember to focus on features that bind generations and cultures: shared parent-child experience, personalization that foregrounds readers’ agency, well-crafted texts, and images that widen horizons. These features are beneficial for reading in any format and they connect reading histories and reading futures.