Dear Ms Smartphone: We had a reading routine before the pandemic and took our kids to the bookstore every other Saturday for story time drop-in. During the pandemic that ceased and I had to get my three girls their own personal laptop computers and iPads so that they could get their school books online and keep up. This was not a hardship for us. But I’ve noticed that they never pick up a book any more. Is this a permanent change? Luis, Los Angeles
Dear Luis: The pandemic changed a lot of habits, and none more than reading since libraries and bookstores were not deemed to be essential businesses. The necessity to download texts and literature means we finally arrived at the ‘Age of New Media.’
As a parent caught between old and new media, it’s hard to say what is the better reading routine. At the risk of being nostalgic, you probably want to be in the same space as your girls when they curl up with a story book and are drawn in by the words. While you trust them, you can never be sure when they read from a computer or iPad, that they are actually on the text and not engaged with something else.
Reading or Browsing?
It’s noteworthy that there are digital fixes for this. Kids know, faster than they can enjoin you to “stay in your lane” to speed toggle between open screens. Meanwhile, parents have their own digital weapons with screen time apps and reading countdowns. That said, measures of spent time can be easily gamed.
Of course, digital conundrums bring digital opportunities. For example, if you have a loving grandma or family friend across town, they can now replicate story-time with your children. Kids and grandma download the same book, and then spend quality time reading aloud to each other from their tablets.
Browsing the literature too!
There is a fair amount of literature circa 2010-2015 about the differences when children learn to read online versus in print. You can check some of these, and also note an author and educator, Maryanne Wolf, who specifically views print as the choice medium. Here in 2021, I am not sure that we are going to be able to make these side by side comparisons of print versus digital learning anymore. Texts are changing and getting shorter. Cyber media is integrated into everything we do – from cradle to grave. There are no more before and after experiments.
But, as a fellow parent, that is not a good enough answer. Kids are not in a laboratory. We can’t wait 20 years to find out whether print or digital media is better for developing strong reading skills. So, do a straddle. First, make sure that there is a ‘working’ book case in your home, and restock it regularly! If you instill a reading habit, your children will mirror that. Soon, as businesses re-open, you can resume your trips to the bookstore, or the library.
It’s At Your Doorstep!
Finally, I would also encourage you to subscribe to a daily newspaper- one delivered to your doorstep. It’s not just because DearSmartphone loves newspapers! These are the vehicle for you to have a regular, ongoing discussion over the kitchen table, and, like our food, the print menu changes daily. It’s a tool to mull over local pictures, news stories, and sports with your kids and even submit your own. Most Sunday papers have special sections for young readers that you can keep around all week. Or, just follow the horoscope and comics together. It’s a way to bring print reading into their everyday lives and assure that as a family you also share meaning and local community.