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Digital Books Benefit Equitable Children's Reading

How print vs. digital reading questions tackle the wrong problem.

Key points

  • A recently launched library of digital books for refugee children shows the asset of digital books.
  • Well-designed digital books can provide children with equitable access to the benefits of reading. 
  • A pertinent question is, "Will artificial intelligence take over the sensory exploration of stories?"

Screen time has taken center stage in national media discussions, sparking concerns about children’s learning and well-being. Researchers have long pointed out that the focus on screen time discussions perpetuates a cycle of binary arguments about whether screens are good or bad for children. One such binary is digital versus print reading. The binary choice falls short of capturing the multifaceted nature of children’s reading experiences.

Cultural and linguistic variations in reading

For a start, attitudes to reading are deeply rooted in cultural contexts, shaped by traditions, values, and societal norms. In some countries, for example, my native Slovakia, an average of 1.9 percent of the annual capita is spent on reading materials. In other countries, leisure reading is an unknown concept. Cultural attitudes translate into children’s expectations around reading and are further shaped by national reading curricula taught in schools.

Another source of variation is language: Each language carries its own nuances. The alphabetic and numeric characters and phonetic, grammatical, and rhythmic features differ. How could all this variation be collapsed into whether children should read on paper versus digital? Not only can the oversimplification lead to misinterpretation of critical aspects of reading, but it also creates a false perception that children can simply choose one or the other format.

Balance between print and digital

Yes, ideally, readers would have a healthy blend between print and digital books, but the problem is that the balance is not possible for all children. Access to books is an issue worldwide. The scarcity of paper in the global book industry slowdowns the process of printing books. Even when children’s books get printed locally, it is difficult to distribute them to families on the move.

The recently launched library of digital books for Ukrainian refugee children shows the assets of digital books that print books fall short of. The library offers digital books and reading activities to children who had to leave everything, including beloved books, behind when fleeing their country. Digital books in this library can be downloaded on phones that most families have. Individual book titles can be distributed on a scale in the millions of copies and read anytime, anywhere.

Quality of books is key

Digital books can be designed to enrich reading experiences. For example, well-designed digital books can foster parent-child conversation with interactive avatars embedded in the stories. Digital books also foster effective story conversations in the absence of adults. The child can adjust the reading pace and get personalized feedback and recommendations through adaptive platforms.

With story-making apps like Our Story, children, and their teachers or caregivers, can easily make their own books. Digital books can be read together when families are not co-located by sharing the screen and tracing each other’s fingers on the digital page.

To reach these benefits, the quality of design is crucial. Digitized versions of paper books (simple e-books) do not advance children’s learning and are inferior to paper books. But well-designed digital books can provide children with equitable access to the benefits of reading. Indeed, those designed by researchers can foster stronger story comprehension than those without. Therefore, instead of discussing screen time, we should discuss the quality of digital books on the market.

Pitting digital books against print books derails discussions about which books work for which types of reading. Moreover, it obscures the intricacies of reading in relation to various cultures, languages, reading needs, and new research areas. One such area is multisensory reading.

Multisensory reading

The latest research progresses our understanding of how auditory, tactile, olfactory, and gustatory elements can enhance the reading experience. In our research project, sensory books, we introduce scents associated with specific story characters and scenes into books. We examine whether children forge a stronger emotional connection to the narrative and how this might impact their recall and comprehension. Both digital and print reading can be augmented with direct or ambient scents.

As such, a multisensory focus on reading demonstrates a more fundamental question: Will artificial intelligence take over the sensory exploration of stories? This question highlights another binary on the horizon: Children’s reading is driven by senses versus AI. That is the question we should discuss instead of “screen time.”


Kucirkova, N. (2022). The explanatory power of sensory reading for early childhood research: The role of hidden senses. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 14639491221116915.

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