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Friday, 9 November 2012

Is online reading bad for you? Leading book store The Works argues it might be

Battling the ever increasing push toward digital reading that threatens its bottom line UK discount book chain The Works – responding to perhaps controversial claims about the dangers of online reading – has launched an investigation into why reading books is better for young children’s development than watching screens.

Despite increased digital reading – this week, US comics publisher DC Comics revealed its digital comic book sales are up 197% compared with the same period in 2011 –  the online and high street book retailer says it has recently noticed a significant increase in children’s books sales that relate to children’s television series including: Dr Seuss, Mr Men, Horrid Henry, Horrible Histories, Thomas The Tank Engine and Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

After recent controversy over claims that watching TV can cause young children  psychological and physical damage, The Works interviewed professionals in the field, including children’s literacy expert, Doctor Sandra Williams, and the National Literacy Trust, to establish the benefits of reading books.

The Works research began after publication of claims by Doctor Aric Sigman, a psychologist whose similar claims about the dangers of social media were widely reported in 2009, recently saw his paper on screen time published as a Leading Article in the British Medical Association British Medical Journals’ Archives of Disease in Childhood.

In it, he argued the sheer amount of average daily screen time during discretionary hours after school children were having, be it watching TV, reading on computers or tablets, was increasingly being considered an independent risk factor for disease, and is recognised as such by other governments and medical bodies but not, however, in Britain or in most of the EU.

Doctor Williams, a Senior Lecturer at Brighton University who specialises in children’s literacy and a wide interest in emergent children's literature, said: “Reading a book, together with the tactile turning of the page is pleasurable and a good picture book has qualities that may not be found in electronic media.

"What is important is the construction of the child and many good quality picture books invite active participation and involvement. Significantly the authors/illustrators leave gaps for the readers to fill. There is a tension between text and picture which invites consideration.”

The Works hope that the printed book will survive the digital revolution. Reading doesn’t provide ready-made answers; it leaves room for imagination and extended periods of focus. This is increasingly important in today’s multi-media world, in which the over-abundance of information can be heavily distracting.

Conal Presho, Head of Development at the National Literacy Trust, agrees: “Only time will tell if print books will be excluded from children’s reading altogether, although it seems unlikely…there is an inherent value in a book as a physical item, particularly when given as a present. We are also very aware that print books are currently much more accessible to those from disadvantaged backgrounds and printed books can be more easily shared or passed on from child to child.”

The Works is keen to promote the exploration of words, sounds, stories and writing amongst young children and will continue working alongside experts and parents to ensure the rightful survival of the book.

We should advise a note of caution regarding Doctor Sprigman's research that seems to have sparked The Works good intentions (albeit intentions which also aim to encourage book sales in their shops, which isn't something we would not encourage anyway). In 2009, when Sprigman appeared on BBC's Newsnight talking about the dangers of social media, Ben Goodacre, writer of The Guardian's "Bad Science" feature, argued he was distorting scientific evidence. "He is the man behind the 'Facebook causes cancer' story in the Daily Mail," he noted, "and many other similar stories over the years (as part of the Daily Mail’s ongoing oncological ontology project). His article can be read in full online here as a PDF.

"I explained that he had cherry picked the evidence in his rather fanciful essay, selectively only mentioning the evidence that supports his case, and ignoring the evidence that goes against it. 

"I claim no expertise on the question of whether social networking and internet use is linked to loneliness," he continued. "I merely have a basic ability to use searchable databases of academic evidence, like anybody else. If you go to PubMed and type in:
loneliness [ti] AND internet
you will get 12 results.

"Many of them do not support Dr Sigman’s theory. These are the ones he completely ignores... [snip] Dr Sigman has ignored inconvenient evidence, in order to build his case."

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