Traditional books vs. eBooks: what's better?

More than a quarter of Americans read eBooks now – and while we're clearly more open to digital reading than we've ever been before, the print vs. digital debate continues to rage on.

When eBook readers hit the market in 2006 they were laughed off. Here was a continuously failed concept that occupied nothing more than a footnote to the vast realm of publishing books on dead trees. It sure didn't help that the first Kindle looked like a 70s Star Wars prop, but stubborn resistance to eBooks ran deeper than this – this new concept had no soul, it would never be any match for the intimate "feel" of leafing through a good book.

Even several years later we hadn't yet opened our hearts to eBooks, certainly not for our children. In 2011, studies showed that the cost of devices and how complicated they were to operate played a role in this resistance – but the largest factor of all was simply that we didn't want to abandon "the paper experience". In the same year, the New York Times delivered the news that parents didn't want their children to read eBooks. “It’s intimacy ... it’s the wonderment of her reaching for a page with me,” said one mom about reading books with her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. A father added, “there’s something very personal about a book ... something that’s connected and emotional, something I grew up with and that I want them to grow up with.”

eBooks have since soared in popularity – and while it's normal for us to hang onto the nostalgia of our youth and want to pass this on to our kids, for how long should we continue to impose this amorphous sentiment on them? When your four-year-old daughter can't decide which book she wants to bring on vacation and requests that eight are packed in the suitcase, it's an immediate headache for parents who want to encourage reading. And with the cost of devices having plummeted over the past few years and millions of eBooks now available, convenience and practicality are great reasons to introduce children to digital alternatives. Children's books are also notoriously expensive, and the savings a parent can make by switching to an eBook subscription service are enormous.

shutterstock_114642343But which is better for their learning – is that not the most important thing here? Studies have yielded various results since the dawn of eBook readers. Some experts believe that traditional print books help children to fall in love with reading, and their simplicity can help them to stay more focused. But it's widely agreed that the quality of eBooks is improving, and in turn so is their benefit to a child's progress. eBooks are more interactive, allowing children to click on or zoom in on words they are unfamiliar with, and this can even help to hone a preschooler’s fine-motor skills. They're also more rewarding. When kids see printed words light up as they sound out the words, they’re encouraged. This is hugely important, because many youngsters find books to be mundane and can be reluctant to read them – but bring out a shiny tablet, and it's a different story.

Reading books on a device also creates a degree of anonymity that can shield struggling children from embarrassment if what they're reading is at a lower level to their peers. It can cater better to their abilities and their style of learning.

I think everybody would agree that children should be exposed to traditional printed books, as they do provide a kind of magic that can't be – or certainly hasn't yet been – replicated by technology. This is why printed books will probably always be around.

But with technology continuing to improve, it seems counter-intuitive for parents to ignore the benefit of eBooks and digital publishing. Granted, relaxing on the sofa leafing through a traditional book with your child might seem like a better bonding experience – but is it? Mobile devices and readers are such integral parts of our lives now that it's probably time we let go of our preconceptions and let them play a role in our relationships with our little ones.


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