Electronic Readers Versus Paper Books: Should We Fight the Future?

February 26, 2018 by: Roy Benaroch, MD Article Tags: ,

Q: What is your opinion on e-readers versus paper books for kids? My kids have begun to associate reading with something that ‘has to be done for school’ instead of something to be enjoyed, and I’m wondering if letting them read on their tablets would spark new interest. It seems that schools are turning more and more to electronic devices for teaching, so how do e-readers factor into the ‘screen time’ equation? Can reading on a tablet at a young age affect eyesight?”

A: It’s been a long time since reading technology has changed as much as it’s changing now. Two thousand years ago, moms were admonishing their children to read their baked clay instead of that newfangled papyrus. Around 1440, Ms. Gutenberg gave her kids one of the first mechanically printed books while her neighbors edged away. Two hundred years later, Ms. Lincoln yelled at young Abraham to stop reading the back of the shovel. I think that’s about it in terms of major reading changes until now, when lit screens seem to be taking over as the medium of reading. When things change, they change fast.

Let me say for the record that I love to read, and I’ve loved books since forever. I rode my bike to the North Miami Beach library a few times a week to load up on dusty, musty, wonderfully smelling books for many of the best years of my youth. I still love book stores (new and used). There is nothing like browsing through a real store or library with real books you can touch, and I hope those places never go away. Still, I’ve got to admit, Kindles and their ilk have some big advantages:

1. No wasted paper, and no wasted shipping and storage and all of those other book costs.
2. It’s really easy to keep a huge library on hand – including thousands of titles that are free (out of copyright), plus borrowed e-books from libraries.
3. Backlit screens = nice.
4. They’re light and easy to read lying in bed. And that adjustable print size is great for those of us whose eyes aren’t so young anymore. I cannot read old paperback books anymore, at least not without holding up a looking glass – and that is not happening.
5. Textbooks, technical manuals, medical references, and similar things can be kept up-to-date without tossing out old versions.
6. E-books make it really cheap and easy for anyone to publish anything (even junk like this!) That has unshackled aspiring writers from the whole agent-editor-publisher gateway.

Still, for every advantage, there are disadvantages, too:

1. Sure, they don’t waste paper. But you can’t easily share them. Or trade them, or keep them on your shelf with scribbled notes in the margin to remind you of a crush you had in high school.
2. Sure, you can keep a huge library – but browsing a list of titles just isn’t the same as looking across a shelf and picking a new or old favorite.
3. Though I love the backlight, we know staring into a lit screen before bed can interfere with sleep.
4. Though in some ways they can be easier to read (their print size and lightness), there’s some evidence that we don’t retain as much as we do when reading an electronic book – especially the temporal sequence of events in a story. That might be because while reading an e-book you don’t get that feeling of pages turning, and the physical reminders of reaching the middle or end of a book as the pages stack up in your hand. I’m not sure this will be true for children who grow up with e-books, but it does seem true for people of my generation.
5. The widespread adoption of e-books will lead to the disappearance of old, out-of-date printed books – which still have value, both as history and as a resource for people who can’t afford the newest stuff.
6. Sure, any aspiring writer can publish an e-book. But agents and editors actually help writers do a better job. Most of the amateur writing out there is crap. Just because you don’t have to have an agent or editor doesn’t mean you don’t need one.

I wonder about the social impact of the widespread use of e-readers, too. You can no longer see and talk about what people on the bus or in the breakroom are reading. Would 50 Shades of Grey have done as well if everyone knew you were reading it? And is that a good or bad thing?

Back to Holly’s questions. I think reading is good, on any media; and even though I’m nostalgic for book-books, I’d be just as happy for my kids to enjoy their books on a screen as on paper. That’s the way things are going. To me, reading doesn’t count as “screen time” (nor does homework. That makes it difficult, sometimes, to judge and count screen time, which is one reason I don’t think rigidly counting minutes is a good long-term solution.) There’s no particular reason to think reading on a screen will affect eyesight differently from reading printed words on a page – in both cases, it’s light transmitting shapes, and whether it’s reflected or projected light, it probably doesn’t matter. Either way, more time outside may be the best way to prevent near-sightedness, rather than trying to change the way children read.

I’ve got a Kindle Voyage, and I love it. And I also still have shelves of books, including many I’ve held for years, and I love them, too. The important, fun thing is the reading – and it probably doesn’t matter how your kids do it.

Dr. Roy’s Reading Suggestions:

For young adults, and the young at heart:

Anne of Green Gables – Ever wonder what it’s like to be a talkative, dreamy red-headed girl? No? Read it anyway.

The Wee Free Men – A wonderful introduction to a sprawling, magical series. Young Tiffany wants to be a witch, but has no idea what she’s getting into.

The Thief – No spoilers, but there’s more to this than… never mind!

For adults, or near-enough adults:

Never Go Back – Uber-investigative butt kicker Jack Reacher investigates. And kicks butt. This isn’t literature, but it sure is satisfying.

The Crazyladies of Pearl Street – A life-in-the-slums coming of age story, with grace and wit.

Zombie, Ohio – Murder mystery + romance + zombie brain-eating goodness. What’s not to like?

Tortilla Flat -These aren’t the smartest, prettiest, or most-likeable protagonists – but you’ll end up rooting for them anyway.

Joyland – In one memorable summer, a boy becomes a carny, and a carny becomes a man.

Roy Benaroch

Roy Benaroch, MD

Roy Benaroch, MD, FAAP is an Associate Adjunct Professor of Pediatrics with Emory University. He has produced several courses exploring medical cases for laymen in his "Medical School for Everyone" lectures, available from The Great Courses, and has also written books for parents and chapters in medical textbooks. He is also on the Board of Directors of The Children's Care Network, one of the largest clinically integrated pediatric care networks in the country. Dr. Benaroch practices general pediatrics near Atlanta, GA.