By: Michael Norris
The latest versions of the iPad are shipping today: the iPad Air and the iPad Mini. Both are improved, and with the price of the tablets still the same as last year (save for a $30 price reduction for the first generation of the iPad Mini) there are probably a lot of people thinking about giving one as a gift this year-or buying one for themselves and handing their ‘outdated’ tablet to their children.
They’ve seen the cute commercials, just like I have. This is the generation born into tablets. Games are on them. Television is on them. A link to their friends is on them. A world of knowledge is on them-but there is both more and less to these devices than people think.
I’m proud of my company’s history in studying tablets. When the iPad first came out in 2010, we quickly added it to our proprietary, nationally representative survey which feeds Trade E-Book Publishing: Simba’s annual report showing usage trends of e-books, what devices people are using, and other data. We knew the iPad was selling very well out of the gate, but we noticed in our findings the number of e-book users wasn’t rising very much. For our next survey a few months later, we added the question ‘Do you own an iPad?’-and it was positioned away from the e-book questions.
It was this simple yes-or-no question-and the cross-tabulation of the findings-that enabled us to discover that about half of all iPad owners in the U.S. don’t use e-books at all. More than half a dozen surveys following that one yielded a similar result. As in: they don’t read e-books on an iPad, on a smart phone, on a Kindle, or on a Nook.
In other words, even though tens of millions of tablet owners have access to more books than he or she could read in a thousand lifetimes, half choose not to access even one of them (to their credit, most still buy and read a lot of print).
The fascinating part is just how completely that finding contradicted the narrative that was driving e-books after the first Kindle was released: the more consumers can access books, the more they’ll want them. Sure, some e-reader and tablet owners were reading more, but plenty weren’t, and publishers began ignoring that fact that tablets have eroded one of the last advantages books have held over other media for generations: portability. With tablets, it is easier than ever to-in the words of one of the earlier iPad commercials-curl up with a movie.
Now that educational apps are being showcased continuously, it is easier than ever to get swept up in the flashy potential tablets offer. But there is an awful lot of doubt about what these relatively new devices will bring to kids-and to learning. According to Simba’s June 2013 survey, only about 24.8% of U.S. adults agree or strongly agree with the statement, ‘children would learn more effectively with tablets in schools than traditional textbooks’ and 37.7% agreed or strongly agreed ‘children would read more books for leisure if they had their own tablet device.’ Of course when you single out the iPad owners-as we did in The iPad and Its Owner as well as Children’s Publishing Market Forecast-you start to see an enthusiasm gap between the technology haves and have-nots: more than twice as many iPad owners agreed or strongly agreed to the tablets in the schools statement, and just over half were inclined to believe children would read more books if they had their own tablet.
Even with those kinds of numbers, there still isn’t the obsessive, wait-in-line-overnight-at-the-Apple-Store kind of belief that tablets, by themselves, are going to either make children better readers or better learners, as an awful lot of adults are in the ‘no opinion’ column on both of these statements.
Even if you don’t put much stock in opinion questions, we’re seeing other evidence the ‘access’ mentality isn’t all it is made out to be: When looking at the latest Kids & Family Reading report from Scholastic, we see that kids are obviously getting involved with tablets: according to that report 21% of children in 2012 were using a smartphone/other handheld device to go online five to seven days a week compared to just 13% in 2010. But the percentage of kids who were reading for fun five to seven days a week dropped from 37% to 34% in the same span. Meanwhile, going online for fun but not for school, playing games and using social networking sites climbed.
Think about it: learning is a challenging thing that tablets may make easier, but so far everything that isn’t challenging is simply taking up more space in a given child’s life.
Before the iPad came out, the advice I was giving to parents on how to make their child a better reader was as follows: bring him or her to a bookseller or librarian that you trust and get out of the way. Kids will appreciate your wallet or library card at the front desk but they won’t respond positively to your hovering. They must be allowed to choose what they read without your influence-otherwise there is a real risk that they’ll feel the book that is supposed to be read for fun has been ‘assigned’ to them. Above all else: put limits on every kind of media except reading and make those limits stick.
In the tablet era, this advice hasn’t changed.
Kids today may read on a screen, on a page, or both, but most of the old rules still apply as long as there are intelligent parents and teachers around the apply them. And some of the rules aren’t going to be popular with kids (i.e., putting limits on media or bringing a reluctant child into a bookstore) but leaving kids to their own devices with tablets may not create the most desired result. And even at their idealistic, ‘cute commercial’ best, I can’t help wondering if tablets might end up denying children the most rewarding and least replaceable learning tool there is: trying and failing. Doing a search for ‘how do I ask a girl out?’ isn’t learning how to do it, but is rather an intellectual equivalent of paint-by-numbers that won’t show the hapless boy in the Nexus 7 ad how complicated human beings really are.
So before we bury kids underneath the latest technology, express surprise that it didn’t yield all of the intellectual benefits that were promised, and repeat, let’s admit that turning children into readers and learners will always be a complicated business. It isn’t about what the child can learn from the tablet, but what the child can learn from the adult who hands it to them.
Michael Norris is the senior analyst of Simba Information’s Consumer Media and Technology practice, editor of Book Publishing Report, and the lead author of Children’s Publishing Market Forecast 2014, The iPad and Its Owner 2014 and The Rise and Impact of Self-Publishing 2013 -2014.