Reading Routine: Print or Digital? Go Newspaper!

Bookstores are closed. From now on will digital reading be the norm for kids?

A sketch of a young boy and a young girl sitting back to back reading. Is their reading routine print or digital?
Should kid’s reading routine be print or digital? credit: Itstock.com/Archiv

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.

Year-End Dear Smartphone

On a pink background rests an alarm clock, so it forms the number zero. Then 2020 is spelled out. The quote says :"year's end is neither an and nor beginning but a going on."
Year-end Dear Smartphone ( image: EdSys)

The year-end Dear Smartphone column in 2019 was about shopping online and holiday pandemonium. It was a prophetic post: “Maybe a future Christmas will put less emphasis on running between stores and accumulating presents and place more weight on taking holiday images, sharing symbols of the season, or just staying home.”

Covid did for Dear Smartphone what Keywords could never accomplish. During 2020 there was a cultural reckoning with smartphones and digital devices. We all became more aware of how we are connected at the hip by them.

 In 2020 staying safe, sane, and sage required us to manage our devices with more insight. 

March 3rd, began a new era of questions and postings, on topics ranging from the transmission of germs to the transmission of social information.

Equity and Access

At the beginning of the Covid virus, it became apparent that people were turning to the Internet, but not everyone had access.  As schools shut down, students from less affluent households lacked the ability to attend online classes. So, voices were raised about digital equity and access. Older people had similar concerns. Many lacked high speed access as well as the knowledge of how to find friends and classes online or trust the grocery order. 

Further into March and April, those blessed with Internet access complained that being online all day made them grouchy and tired. Readers began to query about helping kids moderate digital time and develop other interests. There were equal queries about supporting older people, and getting them up to speed with apps, online payments and Apple watches. 

Not surprisingly, the dual topics of digital etiquette and digital mental health rose to the top this year as readers spent more and more time on their devices.  Someone asked “Is my smartphone making me sick?

Zoom, Ablaze, More….

Dear Smartphone offered commentary on using Zoom, Snapchat, Robinhood, TikTok, and the now defunct Quibi.  Questions about Zoom, not surprisingly, led the pack. One column, which led to a graphic Instagram post, asked whether it is safe to ‘Zoom Zoom’ in the car (the answer is No No unless parked).

In August and September, there was a telecomm pivot as California forest fires blazed close to home. Dear Smartphone advised readers of the emergency links published in local papers. There was a reminder that there are no telecom safety nets. Landline phones can fail at the central office, cordless phones depend on electricity or batteries, and mobile phones need the relay towers to be intact.

The Cancelled…

It is noteworthy to consider what did not take place in 2020, the blazes that did not happen. 2020 did not turn out to be the year of privacy. Before the year began, safety protocols were supposed to be set in place for data and sharing, but they flew out the window with the pandemic. In order to get tested for the virus or help monitor the spread, smartphone users opted to provide location and social data. Even more worrisome, some phones had operating systems that defaulted to Bluetooth and GPS for the sake of Covid tracing.

2020 also cancelled the idea that you could protect kids from phones until a certain age. It became clear that digital devices were integrated into their daily lives, like seeds inside a fruit. Although we are not there yet, children need to be schooled in digital literacy- think of it like a driver’s license, you guide young people with instruction and supervision until they know the rules of the road, engage safely, and are responsible out and about. 

Looking OldeR, Looking Forward…

At the other end of the age spectrum, 2020 also made it clear that older people need to have digital tools to interact and stay connected. Voice activated devices could be their key for transformational changes in keeping social, ordering goods, online classes, and banking. Today, Siri and Alexa provide some assistance, but being nimbler with phones could be an unrealized asset to help older generations stay cognitively active and alert. 


2021 opens the next chapter for Dear Smartphone and its readers. The pandemic will wind down and we will settle into healthier and gainful relationships with each other as well as with our devices. If 2020 was the year in which everything, including Covid went viral, 2021 will be the year in which we learn to harbor digital immunities.

Can Older People be Influencers?

Older people are on Facebook. Are they stoked to be social media influencers too?

This is a graphic by Francis Scialabba. It depicts a megaphone poking out of the screen of a smartphone. The  graphic suggests that phones use devices to be attention grabbers.
Credit: Francis Scialabba. Calling all Influencers!

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I liked the career advice for the teen who wanted to be a social media influencer, but what about older people?! I am in my late seventies and am tired of those ads on TV where famous people with gray hair pitch drugs for aches and pains or reverse mortgages. Can’t I be an influencer too? I am on Facebook almost every day. Vera, Tiburon

Dear Vera: You are absolutely right that influencer marketing is aimed towards younger people, mostly those under age 30, while TV ads target “pills” and “poopers.”

Posting on Facebook falls in a different category, even though it is media and you said you check it regularly. Chances are your account is private, and you have a circle of friends and family that you post for. You are connecting with them, but not trying to get unknown people and strangers to also interact through messages or photos. Facebook is the most commonly used social media by people over 60. Pew reports that 37% of the Silent Generation and 60 percent of the Baby Boomers had accounts, and that was before the Covid Pandemic. Facebook is good for keeping up social connections. Think of it like the newsy Christmas Card that keeps coming all year!

Influentials vs. Influencers

There’s a modern-day distinction between influencers and influential older people. There are many older people who make headlines and do important things (think Dr. Fauci, the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Oprah Winfrey, Maye Musk). These famous names will show up in a list when you search for seniors who are/have been influencers but they do less “pitch” on social media.

They are not influencers, in the social media sense of the word. A social media maven creates content, and a brand, say ‘Warby Parker’ or ‘Toyota’, then associates with them because it draws in like-minded people they would like to reach. BTW, there is probably a marketing agency in the middle of this transaction, holding the marriage together with contracts and revenue. Just this week, there was an announcement that some brands will try to initiate the content and post it on the influencer’s site, after getting their permission. That could corrupt the influencer process, as it stands today.

Quirky TUrkeys

When I searched for older, senior influencers, I was a struck by two things. There are lists of older people who are ‘top ten’ online. But, many of these are quirky older people who are experienced with attention-getting from their former careers as models or fashion designers. They struck me as odd birds in their psychedelic outfits and feathered costumes. They defied my stereotype of age, but not necessarily in a good way. Second, these leaders did less connecting ‘your brand to their content’– the way that modern kids do through a daily vlog or diary. These influencers seemed more like narcissists trapped parroting a campy narrative to copy youngsters. Many were not displaying that cool “authentic voice.”

My concern is that younger people, and those in charge of the advertising machinery, view these older influencers as a curiosity. They are something to be oogled, not because their content is a shared slice of daily life, but because the jarring images covertly reinforce a young person’s game, a hip image-based culture.

REFOCUS THAT IMAGE, Please!


More specifically, older people are not shown showing their strengths. In the words of MIT author/researcher Joseph Coughlin, they control up to seventy percent of the nation’s consumer spending, and are a trillion-dollar component of the economy. Older people have untapped consumer power. They also have a lot social media savvy, but it’s trapped in static messages on Facebook and captured less on video. Only the outspoken have jumped to younger platforms like Tik-Tok, Snap, and YouTube, perhaps because each site begins with cameras and a steep learning curve.