National Edition

Growing up digital: How digital screens are changing the way we read

Published: Tuesday, May 27 2014 4:00 a.m. MDT

This photo taken Nov. 25, 2013 shows Ella Russell, 7, working on an e-book on an iPad during her second grade class at Jamestown Elementary School in Arlington, Va.

Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press

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This is the second in a three-part series that looks at the impact of new technlogy on kids and teens. Read part one: How digital culture is changing the way kids play. Read part three: How the Internet affects teen identity.

When Kevin Donahue got his daughter an iPad, she wasn’t doing much of what he intended it for: Reading.

“All she was doing was playing Angry Birds,” Donahue said.

At the same time, developer Suren Markosian had just quit his job with gaming company CrowdStar, giving him more time with his son Max. But Markosian found himself getting frustrated at story time.

"I couldn’t really find any good books on the iPad. Kindle wasn’t great for kids at all. There was no encouragement and you had to buy the books individually," Markosian said. "It was upsetting to me. So I decided to make it my personal mission to fix it."

So Donahue and Markosian teamed up to try and improve children’s digital reading experience with their app, Epic!

Nicknamed “Netflix for e-books,” Epic! is an app that allows children access to thousands of age-appropriate books, includes badges and encouragement for further reading and provides reports for parents about what and how long their kids are reading.

One of the main goals is to keep kids reading by minimizing device distraction, kind of like ensuring a book is so good it can be read without being distracted by the TV.

“We just want to encourage kids to read more,” Markosian said. “We don’t want to prevent kids from doing what they want to do. We want to make Epic! so great that they choose that over other things.”

That’s a relatively novel idea for technology that, while new, has rapidly taken up residence under toddlers’ fingers. A Common Sense Media report published last year found that about as many children have their own tablet as adults did two years prior.

As a generation grows up glued to a screen, how will this change the way people read?

A recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that American children ages 8-18 spend about 7 hours and 38 minutes with digital media daily. The study also found that with multitasking, kids were able to crunch almost 11 hours of content into that time if they were, say, listening to music or watching a movie on a digital device while crusing and web or doing homework.

Statistics like these should sound alarm bells for parents, says Jim Taylor, a psychologist and the author of “Raising Generation Tech: How to Prepare Your Children for a Media-Fueled World.”

“Technology is neither good nor bad. It’s how it’s used,” Taylor said. “The fundamentals of learning and thinking haven’t changed. To learn something requires sustained focus. The inability to focus will limit or at least change their ability to engage in other, more complex forms of thinking.”

The exception, not the rule

The main problem, Taylor says, is that too much exposure to this kind of media too early can spell trouble for developing kids.

“A child’s brain is very malleable and they will adapt to whatever kind of stimulation they’re exposed to,” Taylor said. “If they’re exposed to, for example, little bits of information, that’s the way they will learn to predominantly process information. The problem there is that real learning takes time and focus to occur.”

While there’s evidence that reading on a screen vs. paper impacts comprehension, the research has been called into question.

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