The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Alison David Headshot

Protecting Children's Reading in the Digital Age

Posted: Updated:

Egmont is the UK's leading specialist children's publisher and as its Consumer Insight Director I research the motivations, attitudes and behaviours of children and their parents in relation to entertainment and reading.

We know that reading is challenged but there are families in which it still thrives. Our longitudinal study, Reading Street, aims to understand the changing world of children's reading for pleasure. It follows twelve UK families plus a wider number of parents, children and teachers and releases the findings in theme focused chapters.

Chapter one discussed how time-poor parents feel under pressure and anxious for their children to achieve and see reading as a skill to be mastered rather than a pleasure. Chapter two found that target driven schooling left teachers with less time to share the pleasure of a good story with pupils. It also revealed that parents tend to step back from story time as their children become more competent readers; by age eight most parents become less involved, simply trusting that because their child can read, they will read for pleasure.

Chapter three, released today, has found that children's habitual screen use is affecting reading. This century has seen family life become increasingly busy; we found that often parents experience guilt about the lack of time they spend with their children. They worry that their children will feel left out, or left behind if they don't have the latest gadget. We discovered that this worry is so powerful that technology is prioritised whatever a family's financial situation.

We see the huge pressure parents are under in their own lives, and the counter effect it has on their children. Because they fill every minute of their days they think their children should too and are terrified of the possibility that they might get bored. By its ubiquitous presence screen time is often used to fill the gaps.

"I let him play DS when I think he will get bored waiting somewhere. Also he plays after school every day" Mum to boy, age 7

You might think, so what? Well, for children's reading it means the quiet moments, when a child might pick up a book, are reduced. Children are often over-stimulated by screens, some using devices long after bedtime. Minds are noisy, they can't concentrate, they flit from one form of entertainment to another and using multiple devices simultaneously (media meshing) is the norm. Childwise data tells us that when online, 39% of children say they also watch TV, 34% use a phone to talk or text and 12% say they read a book.

We think the key is rediscovering the lost art of being still, having a still mind, quiet and reflective moments, and time off-line to enable sustained concentration.

"If I can't get to sleep, I'll wind down by playing Mario Bros on my DS in bed" girl, age 13

In this busy screen dominated world many children aren't in the habit of reading and find books off-putting. That includes reading on e-readers. To date, children's e-reading has been less successful than adults. In 2012 4.5% of children's books sold were eBooks, compared to 18% for adults'. We know about half of UK households now have a tablet or e-reader but they aren't used for reading, more for video or games based media.

But, we know the world hasn't changed that much, children still love stories! Over half of the Mums and Dads we spoke to appreciate reading and say their child adores story time. Parents want their children to read more, 53% wish they had more time to read to their child and 28% are uncomfortable that they don't read to them more. Although screen time may affect children's reading time at home, 81% of teachers don't think all is lost. Despite the challenges, Reading Street has observed families where reading thrives, where children both fervently read and game. Since occasions to read aren't as naturally apparent now, in these families time is consciously carved out.

So, while the digital world brings us fantastic opportunities it also creates children (and adults) who find it hard to concentrate for sustained lengths of time. How do we preserve the art of reading for pleasure? Do we even want to? To me it's clear we have to - because reading for pleasure is the single biggest indicator of a child's success academically, more than social background or parents' education. Children who read for pleasure have increased concentration, memory, confidence; have greater self-esteem and general knowledge. Reading builds empathy, improves imagination and language development.

Chapter four will be released later this year where we investigate the emotional feelings that children's reading engenders and specifically look at why Christmas is so associated with stories.

Alison David is the Consumer Insight Director at Egmont Publishing. Chapter three of its Reading Street into the decline of Children's reading for pleasure has been published today.