Digital technology reshapes children's reading habits

By LI LEI / 10-28-2020 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

According to a 2019 national survey on children's digital reading, Chinese childen read an average of 40 e-books per year and animals were the most popular protagnists among child readers. Photo: CHINA DAILY

Phenomenal growth in digital technologies has revolutionized the way that people read. As of today, digital reading has become increasingly popular. Children who are at important developmental stages have an instinctive desire to learn about the world through reading, and now they are highly exposed to screen-based online learning. As a result, digital technology has brought about great changes in child readers and their reading habits.
Technological advancement
In The Disappearance of Childhood (1982), American educator and media theorist Neil Postman claimed that childhood is essentially a social artifact, whose origin is closely tied to the printing press and the growth of literacy, making the segregation of groups into children and adults possible. From Postman's perspective, the printed word created a division between those that could read (adults) and those that couldn't (children). It takes several years to master reading and writing skills, and those years of "not being able to read and years spent learning to read and write" Postman defined as the childhood years.
Postman argued that television and other forms of media eliminated the divide between childhood and adulthood, since imagery offers undifferentiated access rather than using words to segregate audiences according to age or level of development. In a way, childhood as we knew it was disappearing.
In the digital era, the impact of technology on childhood is mostly manifested in two ways. First, digital reading breaks the monopoly of words, and words alone. The presentation of audio, video and pictures are attractive and appealing for child readers, and these do not require high reading skills. This attraction and accessibility enables children to quickly engage in digital reading after infancy. 
Second, digital reading materials are stored in a non-linear and hypertext way and the "information explosion" greatly expands children's vision. The sharp surge in the amount of information leads to great improvements in learning efficiency, shortening the non-physiological period of children's maturity.
However, ever-changing reading environments in the era of digital communication could have a negative impact on children's knowledge construction. Children are at a physiological stage where the mind is still developing, they are still learning judgment and self-control. Materials with conflicting viewpoints or illogical content make it difficult for children to establish correct and rational values. 
In addition, in today's world, people are more willing to accept a non-linear style of reading that jumps from section to section, often without finishing a particular selection. This skimming style allows readers to encounter a wider range of content, writing styles and views. In the digital context, multi-dimensional interactive reading allows viewers to browse the content they like freely on the internet, communicate with others in real time, and update their pool of knowledge in a timely manner. 
The downside is that the unfettered abundance of digital materials sometimes lacks coherence, and can hold many contradicting opinions and emotions. Without a knowledge input that is continuous, logical, and systematic, children's ability to construct knowledge systems might be impaired. 
Finally, digital reading materials are easy to extract and store on devices or the internet, and such convenience might make children reluctant to memorize information. However, knowledge is valuable when it can be inscribed in the memory of readers. With the support of digital technology, information retrieval becomes more convenient, and children's attitude toward knowledge memorization changes, becoming less proactive, which adversely impacts the systematization of their overall knowledge.
Entertainment trends
Digital technology not only solves the printed book storage problem, but also reduces the cost of reading to a great extent. Against this background, the supply of digital materials has multiplied and expanded to cover a broad range of fields. Some digital reading innovations are favored by children more than others. However, these non-traditional forms of reading have led to serious concerns. There are many doubts about children's preferences for certain content forms, namely, the entertainment trend.
As children, the traditional method we were all taught is to read words alongside pictures, this is often regarded as real reading or serious reading. In the digital age, new reading forms have blurred the boundary between reading and entertainment. In the pre-digital era, reading picture books still qualified as reading, but watching cartoons was entertainment. Now, with the development of digital technology, different forms of digital products, such as animated books, have flooded the market, making it sometimes difficult to distinguish reading from entertainment.
In addition, children of different ages have differences in reading interest, motives, and reading choices. According to domestic surveys, teenagers favor humorous themes, followed by entertainment information and youth literature. In contrast, the staples of traditional book learning, such as learning materials, classical literature, current affairs and political news, are not always on teenagers' lists. Similarly, children are more inclined to choose entertaining books, so digital reading content providers strive to sugarcoat serious and boring information in attractive and interesting packages so that their works are selected from the mass of information. Children's demands  and the pursuit of business profit work together to exacerbate the reading entertainment trend.
At the same time, both reading content and forms have become increasingly diverse. Enterprises and individuals are actively engaged in the digital reading industry, which enriches digital reading materials. Digital technology has also diversified channels and forms of reading. Single channels and monotonous forms are replaced by convenient, intuitive, interactive and appealing platforms. More often than not, pictures, sounds, videos, tactile feedback and other enhancements are blended together to create a bright, concrete and dynamic imaging style that facilitates interactive communication, which is well received by child readers.
Diversified forms of reading
Due to cognitive ability, growth trajectory, personal needs and other factors, the influence of digital technology on children’s reading habits is significant.
First, screen-based reading is on the rise. With the continuous innovation of digital technology, visual fatigue caused by screen reading is being addressed. For example, e-ink screen technology is even able to restore the visual experience of paper reading. The automatic photosensitive device adjusts the screen brightness according to ambient light levels. Blue light filtering technology can effectively reduce the electronic screens damage to the eyes. 
Children born into the internet age are known as digital natives, a term coined to refer to children who have grown up using technology like the internet, computers and mobile devices. This exposure to technology in early years is believed to give digital natives a greater familiarity with technology than people who were born before it became widespread. 
In this light, their understanding of books and reading is different from previous generations. The ritual of turning pages, the weight of books, and the smell of ink and paper are not something they are attached to. Under the influence of digital technology, screen-based reading is quickly accepted by children.
Second, audio-based reading has gained popularity. Audio-based reading includes audiobooks, text-to-speech tools, podcasts, and radio dramas for children. In the long history of human civilization, visual reading has always been dominant, whereas audio-based reading has never been the mainstream, even though this practice emerged early in human cultural history. In the beginning, audio-based reading was conducted face-to-face, so it wasn't as popular as reading books in the conventional sense.
In the age of electronic media, tape recorders, radio and film were invented and the problems of recording and transmitting audio materials were solved. Audio-based reading rebounded from a low point in the era of print communication. At that time, audio reading materials were not abundant and the cost was high. Therefore, audio-based reading failed to make progress in the era of electronic communications. 
In the internet era, digital technology has greatly enriched audio materials. A book's content and the length of a broadcast can be selected at will, with significant cost reduction. Audio-based reading has become widely popular, especially with children, since it has a variety of irreplaceable advantages. For one, it has no literacy requirement, so young children can carry it out independently. Furthermore, it helps to ease children's risk of myopia caused by excessive eye use. In addition, audio-based reading can be carried out simultaneously with other activities. Its subtle role in helping children learn cannot be underestimated. 
Li Lei is an associate professor from the School of Literature and Media at Chongqing University of Education.
Edited by YANG XUE