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How Tablets Ruin Reading for Kids

Photograph by Getty Images

Let me ask you this: when you're reading a book on your Kindle Fire or iPad, does your mind ever wander to email or your calendar or maybe the latest headlines? What if your book was filled with links—would you click on them? What if every time you turned a page you heard a whooshing sound—would that be charming or take you out of the story?

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I hate all of that stuff and, in fact, find reading ebooks to be something of an exercise in staying focused and not clicking. But then again, I grew up with print and the one screen competing for my attention when I was developing my reading chops was in the other room and only got three channels. Today's new readers, digital natives, aren't weak like that, right?

That's probably wrong. Even though a recent study of 35,000 students in the UK found that more 8- to 16-year-olds do their reading on screens, rather than the printed page, the level of enjoyment of reading in the first place has gone way down. Of those who took part in the UK's National Literacy Trust survey, only 12 percent of those who did their reading on a screen said they enjoyed reading, while 51 percent of those burning through pages said they liked to read. Print readers, even if they mixed it with screen reading, made up a larger percent of above-average readers compared to those who only read on a screen—15.5 percent vs. 26 percent.

So what's going on? Atlantic contributor Asi Sharabi argues that screens—with all their bells and whistles, not to mention easy access to so much else—are keeping kids from getting lost in a book's narrative. Instead, publishers are loading children's literature with so many things to do on a page that books have become more like games than books. Rather than kicking back and enjoying the story and the pictures, little ones are pecking away at the screen, trying to elongate Alice's neck or find the hidden pigs.

Only 13 percent of parents are reading to their kids every night in the UK.

For older readers, the lure of apps is pretty tremendous. They're fun, and made to be somewhat addicting. It's a great exercise in learning moderation, but one that adults are constantly losing. Is it fair to expect kids to do better?

Tablets are also kind of a one-person activity (don't agree with me? Sit two kids down with one tablet and see what happens), so parents, Sharabi argues, have turned them over to kids, thereby cutting into—even eliminating—nightly reading. Only 13 percent of parents are reading to their kids every night in the UK, according to the survey.

Sharabi suggests that parents make sure kids get a balance of both print and screen reading, and I agree with that, in principle. In practice in my home, however, my kids don't do eBooks. We've got more screens in this house than we have faces (including the dog's), but I'd rather push them to read on paper. I'll buy them any book they want. We go to the library often. We subscribe to Amazon Prime so, even though we can't instantly download a book, if we really, really need it and it's not at our library or local bookstore, then it shows up in a matter of days anyway.

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I figure my kids have the whole rest of their lives they can choose to waste online and be plugged in and constantly distracted. Why not know what it feels like to fall deeply into the written word—something evidence is showing to be difficult (and I don't think is really possible) when Minecraft is but one tap away.

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