Mama, Don’t Let Your Baby Read E-Books

A couple of weeks back I basically demanded that we all abdicate paper-based books for plastic and bits. And I still stand by that, as long as you’re over the age of 12.

With kids, it’s a different matter.

Keep them away from e-books. Far, far away.

E-books are great for us seasoned readers. But they’re terrible for learning how to love reading.

Plus, reading an e-book means you’re playing a direct role in market research.

And do you really want your kids to be the equivalent of permanent test subjects in a consumer survey?
Companies that sell you e-books are monitoring your every reading moment.

This can be seen clearly in the Kobo’s Reading Life app.

Reading Life is actually quite fun. It turns reading into a sort of game. You get awards for reading at different times of the day, or at different places, or for trying different kinds of books.

If nothing else, you get an interesting statistical view of your reading habits, which can be quite revealing.

But the most brazen example of an e-reader’s ability to track every word you read can be seen in Reading Life’s new “Pulse” feature.

As you read, Pulse shows you how many other people are reading the same page as you, so you can engage instantly with them in discussions about the book.

This is equal parts cool and scary.

But it’s not just Kobo that tracks this data. Kobo just happens to be the only e-book seller sharing it with us.

And that not only enables e-book sellers to perfectly tailor their advertising pitches for our interests.

It gives them a whole new product – data about some of our deepest interests and most entrenched habits – that they can sell to a shadow market of advertising firms.

As adults, we can understand this. More to the point, we can legally and morally consent to it.

But kids? You may as well sell their soul as let them read e-books.

The only e-books I expose my son to are a couple of chapters of the Hardy Boys every night that we read together.

Everything else is paper.

Paper can’t be tracked. Paper is anonymous.

But, more to the point, paper is the way we first fall in love with books and then with reading as an act.

As adults, we don’t need paper anymore. We’re past that romantic, childish notion that paper actually contributes to our ability to consume the written word.

But kids need paper. They need the tactility. The smell of a book and its ink draws a child into the world of reading as much as the words.

In the same way that a kid needs to run and tumble and get dirty, a kid needs to grapple with a book and its contents as a physical object.

They need to be able to write their name inside the cover.

They want to scribble on their favourite pages, or cross out the scary parts.

When I was growing up I’d draw myself into a book’s pictures when I desperately wanted to be a part of the story.

Kids can rip their favourite pages out, cut out characters and glue them into their own pictures.

They can throw a book when it makes them mad.

They can cuddle books they love (I did).

They can drop books.

They can press leaves, bugs, or unwanted food items between the pages of a book.

They can, and do, read multiple books simultaneously.

None of this happens with e-book readers.

Most importantly, though, is the act of reading by accident.

Maybe a book is just laying around, on the floor or on a table.

Maybe it’s on a shelf, or has been re-discovered among the dust bunnies under a bed.

Kids will pick up a book because it’s just there and they’re bored.

It’s why I still subscribe to paper magazines. I can’t count the times I’ve caught my son browsing through a New Yorker just because I left it sitting on the coffee table.

He would never have even glanced at the electronic version I also have on my iPad.

With a device, there’s no room for serendipity in reading, you read with intent.

And intent typically isn’t a strong quality in kids.

Distractibility is, though.

So just imagine you’re 7 years old and own an e-reader that has Angry Birds on it.

Are you really going to do a lot of reading?

Paper, ink, and the overall physicality of the book lead kids to love reading.

It’s a transcendent experience, and an essential part of growing up, when you mature from book lover to reader.

But the experience of the paper book is definitely an essential part of a kid’s apprenticeship in that process.

So if you were thinking of buying an e-reader for your child for Christmas, don’t.

Instead, spend a few hundred bucks on paper books.

At worst, it just buys your kid another year of a private existence unbeknownst to marketing firms.

But I’ll bet those books will become beloved objects that strengthen your child’s grasp of the power and grace of the written word.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, December 2, 2011.

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